JOHANNESBURG: The 2010 African Champions League kicks off this weekend with three-time winners Raja Casablanca of Morocco among eight former title holders in action.
Club Africain and Esperance of Tunisia, Algerian duo JS Kabylie and Entente Setif, Asante Kotoko of Ghana, Egyptian outfit Ismailia and Orlando Pirates of South Africa are the other former champions with first round assignments.
All are taking the first step on a journey that will involve 16 fixtures if they go all the way, with the winner collecting a $1,5 million check and securing a place at the year-end FIFA Club World Cup.
Defending champions Tout Puissant Mazembe of the Democratic Republic of Congo are among eight clubs who have received byes into the second round of a competition first staged 45 years ago.
And the determination of the Congolese Crows from the southern city of Lubumbashi to retain the trophy is reflected in the announcement that a $10 million budget has been allocated for the title defense.
The other seven sides automatically through to the second round include Al-Ahly of Egypt, African champions a record six times and inevitable favorites to raise the cup come November.
ASEC Mimosas of Ivory Coast and Union Douala of Cameroon are among the teams who skip the first round, the former on merit and the latter because the Sao Tome e Principe champions withdrew without explanation.
It remains a mystery why clubs enter African Football Confederation (CAF) club competitions every year only to quit before a ball is kicked, incurring a three-year ban and a fine most can ill afford.
Popularly known as the Green Devils , Raja were the first winners of the premier CAF club competition when it was renamed and revamped in 1997, conquered Africa again two years later and were 2002 runners-up.
But since then the best the Moroccans managed was a semi-finals place and did not even qualify for the last three editions of a competition they also won in 1989 when known as the African Champions Cup.
Raja are away in the first leg to Fello Star of Guinea, a club based in Labe 400 kilometers north east of capital city Conakry who have made two previous appearances without reaching the group phase.
Other former champions playing in west Africa are Kotoko, who face ASC Linguere of Senegal, Esperance, who meet East End Lions of Sierra Leone, and Kayblie, who play Armed Forces of Gambia.
Ismailia face debutants Sofapaka in Kenya, Club Africain meet Sahel in Niger, Setif confront Diables Noir in Congo and Pirates travel north to neighboring Botswana for a showdown with Gaborone United.
Expensively assembled Al-Merreikh of Sudan, who failed to win a game after reaching the group stage last year, are away to Saint George, an Ethiopian team long on African experience but short on success.