The knockout recreation between Spain and Morocco will carry hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts on all sides of the Strait of Gibraltar in combination round displays in bars and dwelling rooms to peer which nation will stay alive its dream of World Cup glory.
Nowhere will loyalties most likely be extra blurred than in Spain’s tiny north African territory of Ceuta the place identities, each nationwide and spiritual, regularly combine in unpredictable ways in which confound the simple classes of sports activities fandom.
Sulaika Hossain, a 26-year-old Ceuta local, feels “100% Spanish” but when the sport kicks off on Tuesday in Qatar, her sympathies will tilt towards Morocco, the land of her grandfather.
“I am a Spaniard and want Spain to win, but I am rooting for Morocco … When Morocco plays, something moves inside me,” she mentioned on the indoor playground the place she works. “Let them win something, so people can say: ‘Look, Morocco is not just a poor place.
Some World Cup games become supercharged with layers of political symbolism, such as the match between USA and Iran last week. Spain and Morocco are far from geopolitical rivals, but their long and complex relationship will no doubt be part of the backdrop to the game in Al Rayyan.
Ceuta has been in Spanish possession since 1580. Its mixed population of Christians and Muslims, Spanish and Moroccan residents and day workers, live in relative harmony behind a border fence that many desperate migrants from across Africa see as their last barrier to a better life.
However, the city of 85,000 recently became the flashpoint of the biggest diplomatic crisis in recent memory between Madrid and Rabat. In May 2021, the Moroccan government dropped its border controls and let thousands of young migrants from Morocco and sub-Saharan countries pour into Ceuta, which Morocco does not officially recognize as Spanish territory.
The move was interpreted as Morocco’s retaliation for Spain’s decision to allow a pro-independence leader from the disputed Western Sahara region to be treated for Covid-19 at a Spanish hospital. That, combined with a border closed by Morocco for two years to control the pandemic, damaged the economy on both sides of the frontier. Tensions were only calmed and the border reopened after Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, met with Moroccan King Mohammed VI in April.
But for many people like Hossain, who live or work in Ceuta, the game won’t tear them in two. It is more like a win-win scenario: they will be happy for either Spain or Morocco to reach the quarter-finals and will pull for the winner to go all the way and lift the World Cup trophy in Qatar.
Mohamed Laarbi, 28, manages a bar in Ceuta that is showing all the World Cup matches. He is a third-generation Spaniard and is fully backing Spain. Regardless of the result, he does not expect the game to lead to any serious problems like the riots in Belgium and the Netherlands after Morocco beat Belgium in the group phase.
“Morocco is playing well, but when they meet Spain they will hit a wall,” he joked. “And then the game is over. That’s it.”
Even so, Laarbi acknowledged that he and other Muslims from Ceuta or the other Spanish territory of Melilla farther east on the coast are caught in a no man’s land.
“Moroccans say that we are not Moroccan, that we are sons of Spaniards, while Spaniards from the (Iberian) Peninsula say that we are not Spaniards,” he mentioned. “There are people from the peninsula who when you say you are from Ceuta, you have to show them where it is, and they say: ‘That is Africa.’”
Morocco’s team is a reflection of the links with Spain, where Moroccans make up the single largest foreign community with 800,000 residents in a country of 47 million. Several Moroccan players play for Spanish clubs, including Sevilla striker Youssef En-Nesyri and goalkeeper Yassine Bounou. Talented right-back Achraf Hakimi, a Paris Saint-Germain player, was born in Madrid.
For Mohamed Et Touzani, a 35-year-old hairdresser in Ceuta, the message is clear: just enjoy the game. Originally from central Morocco, Et Touzani has lived in different parts of Spain for 15 years and said it is “like my house”. He has a house, like many people with Moroccan roots, across the border. He plans to watch the game with Spanish friends at what he calls a Christian bar in Ceuta. He will cheer for Morocco.
“Soccer is soccer, and politics is politics. So we’re going to play a soccer game and have a good time, but with respect. That is the most important thing,” he mentioned. “Morocco has purple and inexperienced [in its flag]Spain has purple and yellow. We have this in commonplace. We are neighbours, and we should are living like we had been brothers.