A Tale of One City: Casablanca

A Tale of One City: Casablanca

This feature is part of A Tale of One City

WHEN THE PIERCING RAYS OF THE MORNING SUN creep between the towering minarets and high-rise building on Casablanca’s Atlantic coast, they don’t shine on a peaceful corniche as one might romantically expect. The first shards of light reveal a startling scene on the broad expanse of sand – thousands of children are to be found swarming the beach hours before most would rise for breakfast. Some will skim thin wooden boards at pace through the shallow surf at the water’s edge and delicately jump on to glide effortlessly for the length of an Olympic swimming pool. Others will be diving into the breaking waves; but all will at some point juggle a ragged ball between each other.

The democracy of football on these shores is a beautiful sight. Whereas budding players around the world often hone their skills on the streets, Bedawa youth invariably head to the softer terrain to develop their touch. Rules, tactics and officiating are all distant thoughts on the mass games that take place in what is a loose microcosm of Moroccan football development. It is hardly surprising that a string of technically proficient players have grown up in this environment: Mustapha Hadji, Aziz Bouderbala, Adel Taraabt and Abdelmajid Dolmy are just a small handful of creative talents to have represented their country, espousing the core qualities of balletic balance and close control that have come to characterise the nation’s style.

This relaxed, natural education was not always representative of the development of football in the city, or indeed the country. The 20th century saw a complex web of events and cultures that gave birth to the two greatest clubs in Morocco, Wydad and Raja, while shaping the mentality of a nation. The relationship between the Maghreb and Europe – France in particular – must be looked at to grasp an understanding of where the deep-rooted passions of Moroccans lie. Perhaps rather fittingly, a story told by a German, an Austrian, a Swede, an American and an Englishman is as good a place to start as any.


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VICTOR COULDN’T TAKE ANYMORE. His wife’s former lover was playing hardball, and the very antagonists against whom he was straining every sinew to defeat had brashly begun to broadcast their loyalties in the room below. Striding through the plumes of smoke and strains of Die Wacht am Rhein being bellowed out by the slightly drunk German officers, he approached the band and ordered them to strike up the Marseillaise in defiance. Knowing that it would do nothing to ease his safety, and at most provide him with a momentary boost in pride, he continued to conduct the impromptu defiant song. Soon, the patriotic fervour of dozens of expatriate Frenchmen had swelled and eventually swallowed the Teutonic number, to a rousing denouement of rapturous applause and cheering.

Many will recognise the iconic scene involving Humphrey Bogart, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains and Conrad Veidt from the most celebrated film of all time, Casablanca. The multi-national cast depicted the mood of a city that was, in real time, in the throes of an almighty battle to claim dominance of the region. Released in 1942, a matter of months before Rommel’s Afrika Korps were finally driven out of the continent in Tunisia, the epic depicts the uneasy struggle between the Nazi invaders, the Vichy French occupiers and the underground resistance, all the while paying little attention to the native population.

Algeria had been governed by France for over a century, while Tunisia’s French protectorate had been administered for half that time, but both were much more directly ruled by their aggressors. Whole replacement governments had been brought in to eradicate any hint of independent representation as France took an aggressive approach to instilling authority. Morocco, meanwhile, had remained independent until just before the First World War began, and even after the Treaty of Fez carved up the rich coastal areas of the country between Spain and France, it remained a sovereign state with its Sultan still monarch, although with greatly reduced powers.

Independence and identity were thus very important to Moroccans, but the strong influence of the French administration, which brought vital investment and security to the faltering economy, meant certain restrictions arose in society for native citizens. Around the massive port of Casablanca there were a number of swimming pools that were only made available to members of sport societies. Typically, these clubs were directed by foreigners, but as the membership of Moroccan Muslims and Jews grew, the administrators acted to ensure that their elitist interests were not endangered by encouraging locals to set up their own society.

This freedom of membership was unusual in the broader region, where other nations banned all forms of membership to natives, but in 1937 the first society run by and intended for Moroccans was established as the Wydad Athletic Club. Initially a swimming and water polo club, the name Wydad was allegedly chosen after one of the founding members arrived late for the meeting to thrash out the fine print of the club after watching a film of the same name, which translates as ‘Love’, by Egyptian singer and actress Oum Kaltoum. Football was finally added to the program of sports on the eve of war across the globe, and despite a strong first two seasons, Wydad were placed in the second tier a year before Ingrid Bergman melted Bogart’s heart on screen.

The non-aggressive occupation by the pro-axis Vichy French meant that Wydad’s formation was less of a slap in the face to the occupiers, and more of a compromise to maintain a semblance of cordial relations. Or at least on the surface it was; there were certain strings attached to the permission to found a club for Moroccans, chief of which were a ban on any affiliation to religion or politics, no prejudice against the French, and an equal number on the committee of French and Moroccans. Similar restrictions had been placed on sport societies in the British protectorate in Egypt with intentions of controlling the spread of nationalistic associations. The fervour and depth of support would eventually render these attempts to suppress opposition futile.

Early rivals were Union Sportive Marocaine de Casablanca, who were dissolved the year before independence was granted in 1958. They had already won nine national championships by the time of Wydad’s foundation, and would count the legendary Just Fontaine as a player in the early 1950s. Fontaine was born in Marrakech, and began his career towards the end of the French occupation of Morocco in the 1950s, but famously went on to represent France at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden where he scored an astonishing 13 goals. The drain of talent to pull on the blue shirt of the ‘parent’ nation in the early 20th century caused a great deal of understandable resentment, as Moroccans grew tired of being instructed to either represent or show pride for a nation other than their own.

After the war, Wydad finally achieved some success by winning the first of 18 national championship titles in 1948, but of greater significance in the historical context was the support they garnered from across the nation. Seen as trailblazers in the symbolic battle against the French-run clubs, they were adopted as the standard bearers of the nationalist movement that was growing rapidly.

Three years before their foundation, the Comité d’Action Marocain (CAM) was established with the express purpose of campaigning for the increase in Moroccan members in the government, and the cessation of the complete stranglehold the occupying population held over political power. Their efforts were suppressed by the French as they were disbanded a few years later, but their voice had been heard.

Before the end of the Second World War, with the Nazi forces having been driven out of the country, focus turned more exclusively onto regaining control. Locals had believed that the Allies would eventually provide their best chance of gaining independence, but after the Istiqlal party’s manifesto demanding full self-governance was backed by Sultan Mohammed V, it was humiliatingly denied by the French authorities. It was in this environment that Raja, which translates as ‘Hope’, was founded by a theatre troupe in March 1949. Their skill was evident early on as they circumvented the still-rigid laws that had allowed only French presidents of clubs (although a special concession had been granted to Wydad over a decade earlier) by appointing Moroccan Benabadji Hadji, whose French-Algerian heritage appeased the authorities.

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RWWydad versus Raja is one of Africa’s greatest club games

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From the start their history as performers and entertainers was established; they chose to build a brand of flair and excitement that flamboyantly dominated supposedly superior teams. In the inaugural Club World Championship in Brazil in 2000, where Manchester United appeared after controversially being encouraged to opt out of the FA Cup by the Football Association, Raja lost all three group games but won over legions of local supporters with their brand of showmanship. Successive promotions lead them directly to the top flight within two years, but although they have resided there ever since, it took almost forty years to claim their first national league title.

It could have been much earlier if modern-day league rules had applied. In 1960, Raja finished tied on points with FAR Rabat and KAC Kenitra but with a far superior goal difference. On moral grounds, they refused to enter a mandated playoff group and thus relinquished the chance to become crowned champions. This highly-principled stance only endeared them further to the hoards that had grown to love them, and increased their reputation in the shadow of Wydad. Their cross-town rivals had won the first league championship after independence, in 1957, and were runners-up the following two seasons before Raja’s boycott, which set a precedent for the success of each club early on.

Although Sultan Mohammed V had been rebuffed in his initial attempts to support a move towards independence nearly two decades earlier, in 1956 he successfully negotiated the reform of his country into a constitutional monarchy with a democratically elected government. It was still some way off the full independence that Morocco enjoys today, but it was the first major step towards achieving what the entire nation had been pining for since the French took partial control in the 19th Century. As an 18-year-old, he had been appointed Sultan in a position of limited realistic powers, but even during his exile in Madagascar in the mid-1950s he strove to improve the lot of his citizens.

His endorsement for Wydad as the club that had helped the push for Moroccan self-determination saw the club’s reputation as a middle-class preserve formed in some eyes. This, however, is a slightly lazy assessment. It washes over the all-encompassing appeal of their groundbreaking work to strive for emancipation from the overbearing French authorities, and much as both sets of fans would hate to admit it, their clubs have a fair amount in common when it comes to their purposes. The Green Boys ultra group have given Raja a fierce following across the region, and they push their club’s claims to be Vox Populi. It would be churlish to deny the similar efforts made by Wydad.

It is debatable whether Raja would have maintained their huge following to quite the same extent without the flurry of domestic and continental success they enjoyed after their merger with 1994 champions Olympique de Casablanca. OC were, in 1904, one of the first Moroccan clubs to be created, but aside from their solitary league triumph and three Coupe du Trone successes, two of which were against Raja in the final, were all the silverware they had to boast. Nevertheless, the subsequent string of six consecutive league titles – a record – shows the influence of the move on the pitch, and the two further CAF Champions Leagues that followed enhance their status as international heavyweights.

During the 1960s the dominant side in the country was FAR Rabat, who won seven titles between 1961 and 1970, but Wydad did pip Raja to the 1966 championship. In fact, by 1991, Raja Ifraja (Raja of the show) had only won one championship and ended as runners-up twice, whereas Wydad had claimed nine championships and finished second five times, so their rivalry up until this point was in ideology rather than on the pitch. Olympique de Casablanca’s triumph in 1994 was at the expense of the Red and Whites, and given the future developments they had in connection to Raja, it is still a turning point that the latter’s fans celebrate.

During this period after independence, Morocco’s status as a major player on the world stage was poor at best. A single draw in a dead rubber group stage match against Bulgaria was all the national team had to show for their troubles in the 1970 World Cup, and it wasn’t until they returned to Mexico, sixteen years later, that they redeemed themselves by topping England’s group. It took two decades from the historic departure from French authority to win the African Cup of Nations, before which Morocco had either failed to qualify or had not even entered.

Moroccan club players rarely sought employment outside their homeland at this time. Abdelmajid Dolmy played for Raja for 18 seasons, as well as representing his country at Olympic and World Cup level, and could surely have graced a European league. It wasn’t until the end of the 1980s that the first tentative steps were taken outside the country, mostly thanks to their heroic showing in Mexico 86, still their best showing at the World Cup. Aziz Bouderbala was one of the earliest pioneers, spending 11 years in Switzerland, France and Portugal after beginning his career at Wydad, while current national manager Badou Ezzaki spent six years at Mallorca after being voted African Player of the Year in 1986.

The relative lack of national recognition on a global level has not concerned fans of Raja and Wydad one bit. If anything, it has made the derby even stronger, as the players that are born and developed in their systems have left less often than other North African nations until the last couple of decades. Since the mid-1990s, the intense rivalry in Casablanca has simmered with increasing heat thanks to their domination of domestic and continental competition.

When Mohammed returned from exile in 1955, he oversaw the opening of the 67,000-capacity Stade Marcel Cerdan, which after his death would carry his name. This cavernous venue has hosted both teams for over half a century, and on match days can be a breathtaking sight. The colours of the national flag, Wydad’s red and Raja’s green, fill the stadium alongside banners, smoke, shirts and every other imaginable object. The latest derby saw some stunning tifos from Wydad’s followers that depicted an enormous hooded fan designing graffiti on the fans themselves, as they turned over placards that revealed the word ‘King’ – a reference to their royal approval from the man whose name the stadium holds.

A dull first half couldn’t dampen the spirit of the extraordinary displays in the stands, but it was the second half that told an intriguing tale of the relationship between the clubs and their followers. Raja took the lead on the hour mark through their Nigerian striker Christian Osaguona, but John Toshack’s Wydad hit back with two late goals, the second in the last minute. When an even more dramatic equaliser with the last touch of the match followed a collision between Salaheddine Aqqal and Wydad keeper Mohamed Akid, the mood was dampened by a sense of inevitability that a draw had been ensured.

“It was staged. They prepared this before,” said Nabil, a Raja fan who attended the match in April. “A draw helps them for the title, while there is no trouble on the streets, the trams and shops will be spared.” Before the match, 4,500 police had been deployed around the stadium five hours before kickoff, while the stands were full almost three hours before the match itself. While the anticipation grew to unfathomable levels, fights broke out between fans, but most aggression was contained thanks to the large presence of security. “It’s a joke, they did almost nothing all match except the goals, we deserve better than this charade.” Accusations of match-fixing aside, the result did indeed favour Wydad as their former Real Madrid manager claimed the title in May in his first full season in Moroccan football.

The success of the ultras seemed almost of as much importance as the result to some sectors of the support. Raja slumped to eighth place at the end of season and were not in contention to influence the title race, but had only the week before produced another stunning tifo of their own against Kaizer Chiefs in the Champions League. In the derby, however, one of their main banners embarrassingly ripped and caused endless mirth from their rivals. Raja fans hit back with a bizarre chant of “Why didn’t Fez come?” – a reference to an odd incident in 1973 when Wydad were given a walkover when Fez failed to appear at their league match because there were no buses available. However true the tale is, it feeds the convenient image of Wydad as having been favoured by fortune as opposed to earning their success.

While the national side continue to underwhelm, incidents like pulling out of hosting this year’s African Cup of Nations due to concerns over the West African Ebola outbreak do not help the global image of the country’s football administration. Having failed to qualify for a World Cup since France 98, they are currently ranked 21st in Africa, below Cape Verde Islands, Uganda and Equatorial Guinea. But one thing is for certain – Raja and Wydad don’t care, as long as they reign supreme in one of the world’s most incredible cities, Casablanca.

By Andrew Flint. Follow @AndrewMijFlint

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