Intrigue ahead of African Champions League and Confederation Cup draw
The underground auditorium at the Confederation of African Football's headquarters in the desert north of Cairo will be a lot busier than usual on Wednesday.
It is there that representatives from 32 different clubs will gather for the draws for the group stages of both this year's African Champions League and African Confederation Cup.
Football on the continent ventures into unchartered waters this year with the expansion of the group phase in both competitions from eight to 16 teams, in a move that is both bold and risky.
Instead of two groups of four teams in each competition, there will now be double that size, with the top two finishers in the four groups going on to a newly introduced quarterfinal round.
That will add excitement to competitions that are far too often characterised by drudgery. But whether diluting the field injects the necessary excitement remains to be seen. There will certainly be a few more lopsided affairs, and therefore the promise of an increase in the number of goals, but quality is still likely to be in short supply.
The Champions League has consistently suffered from a lack of star attractions and decent performers, primarily because so much of the cream of Africa's football talent leaves for more lucrative pastures at the slightest invitation.
If you consider there are more than 200 Nigerians playing in leagues across the planet, the impact on the domestic scene in the populous West African country is enormous. Only one Nigerian club has ever won the continent's top prize -- the Champions League -- and the reason is primarily because there is not much left at home in terms of decent playing resources.
The same holds true for many other countries who are major exporters of talent, like Cameroon and Senegal. Their national teams always do well but their clubs are relatively lightweight in continental competition.
That is one of the primary reasons African club competition is dominated by clubs from the Arabic-speaking north of the continent, where the spending power is still sufficient to keep players at home.
In more recent times, the trend has changed to a more universal one -- rich patrons ploughing millions into making their teams champions, as has been the case with the last two Champions League winners -- TP Mazembe Englebert of the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Africa's Mamelodi Sundowns. This year's field will be headed by holders Sundowns, Etoile Sahel of Tunisia and the two Egyptian giants Al Ahli and Zamalek.
Surprisingly, there are only four clubs in the last 16 who have never played before in the group phase of the Champions League, which was first introduced in 1997. St George of Ethiopia, Ferroviario Beira of Mozambique, Zanaco of Zambia and Caps United from Zimbabwe make up that list.
Nine of the 16 clubs come from North African countries, which keeps up their dominance and, essentially, sees the expansion idea fail to offer the hoped-for variety. But that could come in time.
In the Confederation Cup, at least, there is a wider spectrum of clubs and already the objective of more regular continental club competition matches played in the fringe markers has been achieved.
Mbabane Swallows of Swaziland, for example, became the first team from the tiny Southern African kingdom to compete in the group phase and Uganda have made the breakthrough with Kampala Capital City Authority.
Mazembe, who flopped in the early rounds of the Champions League and dropped down to the Confederation Cup for a second successive year, will be heavily fancied to hold on to their title.
The Champions League field is wide open, however, and most intriguing. Hopefully now there are more memorable match days and improved television coverage, which is also one of the barriers to improving the competitions.
Mark Gleeson covers African football for ESPN FC.