Mamelodi Sundowns benefit from CAF's repeated oversights
On Tuesday, 34 days after they were eliminated from the African Champions League, big-spending South African club Mamelodi Sundowns were reinstated.
That such a turnaround came to pass is due to the most extraordinary stroke of good fortune, although how the error which led to it was spotted only at this late hour must be of concern and acute embarrassment to the Confederation of African Football.
Sundowns' reprieve came after the disqualification of AS Vita Club from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who were kicked out of the competition for using a defaulted player during a early-round tie.
Malian midfielder import Idrissa Traore should have been sidelined through suspension but took the field, with Vita either willfully ignoring the rules and chancing their arm or making what turned out to be an exceedingly costly administrative error.
Traore, who carries the nickname "Essien" for his similarity in playing style to the ex-Ghana international Michael, had been handed a four-match suspension last year when playing for Stade Malien in the African Confederation Cup. He sat out one game but still had three to serve when he moved to Kinshasa.
By fielding him in the first round against Mafunzo of Zanzibar, Vita were effectively cheating but no one in the clerical department at CAF noticed the infarction. Had they at that point, Vita would have been expelled from the competition and Mafunzo allowed to progress.
But CAF's competitions department missed the error and then compounded the oversight when Traore played in the second round against Ferroviario Maputo of Mozambique, a tie they won 2-1 on aggregate.
Instead it is Vita's latest victims, the South African champion Sundowns, who get the lucky break and they should be thanking those who picked up the infraction so late into this year's competition. It was just before Tuesday's group stage draw in Cairo that the Congolese were kicked out and the South Africans reinstated.
In this era of computerization and mass communication, double checks should be routine and commonplace and this entire incident reflects very poorly on administration at CAF's headquarters in Cairo.
Maybe there is also a modicum of footballing justice: Sundowns were particularly unfortunate to lose to Vita, beaten on the away goals rule in a tie they dominated both home and away, and will be relishing their second chance.
Their reprieve comes just two days after they lifted the South African Premier League title, after which they had a bus top parade through the streets of the capital Pretoria.
While Sundowns were deserved domestic champions, they imploded surprisingly in continental club competition, having spent to build a squad fit to challenge for African honours. Given their last-minute entry into the group stage there will be little money on Sundowns' progressing to the semifinals but Pitso Mosimane's side have the capacity to prove many wrong.
Tuesday's group draw was all about the Egyptian pair of Al-Ahly and Zamalek who, between them have won 13 titles. Since Zamalek's last success 14 years ago, their bitter rivals Al-Ahly have won the Champions League on five occasions and also finished once as runners-up.
Many were hoping the pair would be drawn together but they were kept apart as Al-Ahly go into Group A with Zesco of Zambia, ASEC Abidjan from the Ivory Coast and Wydad Casablanca of Morocco.
Wydad, who are coached by former Wales and Real Madrid manager John Toshack, knocked out holders TP Mazembe Englebert in the last of the preliminary knockout rounds but it is Al-Ahly who will be firm favourites to win the group. They have a seemingly good fit as coach in Martin Jol, who took over in February and has lead them to the brink of yet another Egyptian league title.
In Group B, Zamalek face 2014 winners Entente Setif of Algeria, Enyimba of Nigeria and Sundowns. Alex McLeish recently quit as Zamalek coach after just two months in charge and the club will find it hard to finish in the top two and advance to September's last four. The group phase runs through from mid-June to the end of August.
Despite that, the possibility of an all-Cairo final is mouthwatering and will make for an intriguing few months ahead.
Mark Gleeson covers African football for ESPN FC.