Nordin Amrabat spent last season living in Madrid and playing in LaLiga for Leganés, but he really wanted to beat Spain last Monday evening. Even though Morocco had already been mathematically eliminated from the World Cup, the winger gave all he had in the final Group B match, committing five fouls, living on the brink of a red card and coming a crossbar’s width away from scoring the goal of his life.
Once all was said and done, the final score was 2-2, but Amrabat was so disappointed not to have taken those two extra, seemingly meaningless, points that he unleashed a foul-mouthed rant about VAR at one camera, and at one poor cameraperson.
Amrabat wasn’t the only person experiencing that match as a Moroccan who earns his or her living in Spain. Almost 3,000 kilometres away on the North African coast, the match was being broadcast in Ceuta and Melilla, two Spanish cities which share a border with Morocco.
The tiny Spanish enclaves sit squeezed between the Mediterranean Sea and the African nation and have been part of Spain since the 15th century. While their sovereignty has provoked diplomatic conflicts with Morocco over the years, in the same way as there has been tension with the UK government over Gibraltar on the south of the Iberian Peninsula, the residents of these two little cities generally coexist peacefully.
Both boast a population of around 85,000 people and they are both incredibly diverse. Data released in 2012 from the Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas (The Centre of Sociological Investigations) showed that the percentage of Catholics in Ceuta and Melilla was 68 and 46 respectively, with a respective 28 and 38 following another religion. For comparison, the third-ranked autonomous community in Spain for the practising of another religion is Madrid, where just four percent were found to do so.
Logically, given they border Morocco, the main alternative religion is Islam, although a number of other religions are regularly practised in these enclaves too. With thousands of Moroccans crossing into Ceuta and Melilla every day to work and to shop, there is a constant mix, while the close proximity also means many Moroccans ultimately become residents and Spanish citizens.
All of this means that Ceuta and Melilla are two fascinating cultural and national melting pots, and they were even more so when Spain and Morocco met in the World Cup. Although the two nations share border walls at the edges of Ceuta and Melilla, La Roja’s UEFA membership and the Atlas Lions’ CAF membership mean that they very rarely meet on a football pitch. In fact, their previous clash came all the way back in 1961, when they met in an inter-confederation playoff for the following year’s World Cup in Chile, with Spain winning 3-2 in Casablanca and then 1-0 in Madrid.
Now, however, they had been paired together again in Group B of the World Cup, Morocco’s first trip to the biggest competition in football since they went to France in 1998, and the excitement had been stewing for months. There is definitely a sporting rivalry between the two nations, even with this fixture’s five-decade hiatus.
“The game against Spain was a highlight ever since the draw in December,” Moroccan journalist Amine El Amri explained. “Almost everybody in Morocco is a fan for either Real Madrid or Barcelona, but, in the space of one day, all rivalries were cancelled. Everybody knew exactly who to cheer for.”
While many Moroccan fans may adore Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos throughout the LaLiga and Champions League season, on this occasion they preferred the capital city side’s backup right-back Achraf Hakimi, who last year became first Moroccan international to play for Los Blancos.
“The tension hit its peak when Youssef En-Nesyri beat both Gerard Piqué and Sergio Ramos, two of the best defenders in the world, to give an advantage to Morocco,” El Amri added. “‘We support these guys throughout the year and now we’re beating them’, said somebody in the café,” El Amri recalled, before explaining that other Moroccans he spoke too are hoping for a rematch soon.
One Morocco player who’ll surely be hoping for a rematch and for whom this fixture meant more than most was goalkeeper Munir Mohand Mohamedi. While he plays for the Atlas Lions, he was actually born in Melilla, and he plays in Spain for second tier side Numancia. He spoke about his mixed emotions after the full-time whistle in Kaliningrad. “On one hand, I want Spain to go far and win the World Cup, but on the other hand I wanted to experience the joy of winning with my national team,” he said after the 2-2 draw.
The shot-stopper’s presence in the Morocco side is the perfect example of the special relationship all of those from the enclave have with their neighbour, and, at his former club, UD Melilla, they were thrilled to see him on football’s grandest stage, even if his multiple saves nearly cost Spain: “For UD Melilla, it was a tremendous honour to see how one of our footballers has ended up competing in a World Cup, even more so in this case because the Moroccan goalkeeper is a product of Melillan youth football,” explained Antonio García Jáuregui, the vice-president of UD Melilla. “The professionalism Munir has demonstrated with Morocco was already on display in our team.”
Asked how those in Melilla felt watching one of their own try to keep out the likes of Isco, Andrés Iniesta, David Silva and Diego Costa, García Jáuregui admitted that it felt unusual: “This match was experienced in a very special manner, which is logical,” he replied. “Melilla is a city which prides itself on being Spanish. The patriotic passion and love for football means that these matches of the national team are followed with special interest, although Monday night’s one was quite peculiar because a lot of the citizens here have strong ties with our neighbouring country. Many families have Moroccan origins, so different feelings may have met under the same roof, although always with an atmosphere of healthy rivalry.”
The vice-president of the third-tier club also reflected on the city’s famous coexistence and was proud that the rivalry could be experienced in the way it was. “This autonomous city is famous for the coexistence of the different cultures which exist here, such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Roma culture,” he stated. “While there may have been some rivalry between neighbours, both inside and outside of the Spanish territory, it never became anything more than this. The goals were celebrated a lot and the fact that it was such an entertaining match, with Spain finishing top of the group, means that we were all content at the end.”
Over in Ceuta, 250 kilometres further west along the coast, the atmosphere was similar. “It was a very calm night and the few Moroccans that were in the city at the time backed Spain,” reported Susi Iñesta. “Once it was over, they all said the same thing to us, which was that they hoped Spain could improve their style of play and that they were sure their fellow Moroccans who had been in Russia would simply change one shade or red for another and would now support Spain.”
Iñesta even explained that a friend of hers from nearby Moroccan city Tétouan came to her house to wish Spain good luck for the knockout stages. “There is a man from Tétouan who I save my son’s clothes for when they become too small and he sells the clothes in Morocco,” she said. “He came to my house after the match, as he had been watching the game in Ceuta, and he told me, ‘Miss, it was a bad match, but now Morocco is with Spain’.”
At Ceuta’s Centro de la Esperanza (Centre of Hope), where unaccompanied minors are looked after and where the vast majority are Moroccan, the game was enjoyed as well. Former Tottenham and Real Zaragoza footballer Nayim watched the match along with the youngsters, some of whom were wearing Moroccan tops but who had Spanish flags wrapped around their waists, and the retired player was impressed by the camaraderie. “The atmosphere was incredible,” Nayim told Faro TV afterwards. “The youngsters were applauding all of the passages of play, those of Spain and of Morocco.”
Like Amrabat, most Moroccans’ desire to win and to get one over Spain was immense, but once the dust settles and the VAR replays fade from memory, the friendly relationship those in Ceuta and Melilla have with their neighbours will persist. Real life is not a gleeful credit card advert, so it would be a stretch to try to suggest that this match brought a bunch of smiley hand-holding people closer together. But that shouldn’t make it any less impressive that this unique footballing rivalry didn’t push those in Ceuta and Melilla apart.
By Euan McTear @emctear