To mark the occasion of this month’s news that Morocco was finally succesful in a bid for hosting the World Cup (they will host in 2030, together with Portugal and Spain), we’re re-running this essay from our beloved FOOTBALL issue, by Moroccan author Yassin Adnan, translated by Moroccan translator Hicham Rafik, with photographs by Moroccan photographer Omar Mesrar.
By Yassin Adnan
Translated by Hicham Rafik
I am not an expert when it comes to matters of sport, but, like any Moroccan, I am passionate about football and its news. And because passion is a part of sports, I found myself following the local team, al-Kawkab al-Marrakeshi. But I’ve fixed on Raja Club Athletic, in Casablanca, as the team I follow for its news and moments of joy. Fact is, I chose Raja not for its stars nor for its honors, but mainly because of its fans. These historic fans cover the stadium in art in a way that Raja never will.
The tifos of Raja’s ultras roam Arabic websites, and everyone waits for them, such that they are received in all Arab countries, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf. As for the chants of the Raja fans, even children in the streets and alleys of Casablanca have learned them by heart. Moreover, Raja fans remain the most concerned with national issues. It is a highly politicized audience. It’s an audience that stands in solidarity with the Palestinian cause in an inauspicious time, when nationalism is falling. “Lahbiba ya Palestine,” the famous chant that many musicians reworked and redistributed during their concerts, was even repeated at rallies in solidarity with Palestine—even in Mashreqi countries, where people long considered the Moroccan accent too hard to understand. As for Raja supporters’ chants that stand in solidarity with the oppressed and marginalized people of Morocco, even teachers and doctors don’t mind singing them during their protests. Moreover, Raja fans are authentic in a special way. Before the confinement, Raja fans left the stadium and headed for the home of a Raja fan who has cancer. Legions gathered before his window, where the Raja songs rang out for about an hour while the patient waved weakly in an emotional scene. Such fans are unparalleled throughout the Arab world. And for this, I adore Raja. First and foremost, because of those fans.
And when the Raja team qualified for the 2013 FIFA Club World Championship, which was held in Marrakesh, I went to watch the great game between Raja, which was the Arab and African football representative, and Bayern Munich, the winner of the UEFA Champions League. But instead of watching the game, I found myself spending all my time following the Raja fans, who were continuously doing loud waves and enthusiastic chants. Only after the game came to an end did I discover that I had attended an important match, yet without succeeding in watching it. Fortunately, there are a few channels that rebroadcast the games. When I was back home, I searched among these channels and watched the game, from which Raja fans had stolen my attention.
Every once in a while, I surprise my friends with articles or at least blogs that discuss matters of national football. But as much as these articles make some people happy, others grow resentful. The idea, they say, is that football is the opium of the Arab nations, and that we, as writers and operators in the fields of culture, have to be cautious and suspicious of it. Well yes, it’s an opium, but where is the problem? I think when Karl Marx wrote that religion was the opium of the masses, he didn’t mean it was a drug, but a balm. Opium in Marx’s time was a painkiller. Like football, it can ease the wounds of nations, poor and rich, and provide them with a reason for entertainment and relief. And who says that being affiliated with the fields of literature and culture puts one outside the circle of football aficionados, as if this is not a noble sport, but rather a mean activity strictly for the masses? This is wrong. Literature has a special relationship with sport, and especially with football. Not just because many novelists worked this sport into their stories and novels, as I personally did in my novel Hot Maroc, but also because many writers were athletes, and especially football players.
For instance, Albert Camus, winner of a Nobel Prize, was goalkeeper for the University of Algiers team in the 1930 season. The Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov was also a goalkeeper, as was the Russian poet Yevtushenko. And in Morocco, we have many well-known literary names with roots in the world of football, such as the poet Ahmed Sabri, who was a football player and then a coach. In Marrakesh too, the poet Jamal Amach and the novelist Abd Elaziz Ait Bensaleh were football players before they devoted themselves to literature, which happened after they had retired from playing football; the former was best known as a poet and the latter as a novelist. The author of the novel Moroccans, Abdelkarim Jouaiti, was a great fan of football, and he served as president of the club Raja Beni Mellal. Football played a strong and comic role in his novel Platoon of Ruin, the first Moroccan novel to be longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction.
Personally, to this day, I still play football, although I am careful not to be played by it, especially as I have witnessed how football is used to manipulate crowds. In the early 80s, when I was an adolescent, the city’s first team, al-Kawkab al-Marrakeshi, was in the second national division. But right after the 1984 popular uprising—in which students from Marrakesh were deeply involved, and which was violently suppressed by the authorities—the latter noticed the need to distract the city’s youngsters with something that would make them numb and distract them from politics and protests. It was agreed that al-Kawkab al-Marrakeshi was the solution. Mohamed Mediouri, a loyal son of the city, was serving as the Head of Personal Security for the late King Hassan II. The king ordered him to manage the team, and so it was. Al-Kawkab al-Marrakeshi climbed to the first national division, and all the city’s events were built around it. Local authorities, as well as regional economic institutions, dedicated themselves to providing reasons to support the team, trying to get closer to the new president. And so al-Kawkab al-Marrakeshi became an unstoppable team, especially at home. We used to go to the Harthy Stadium in Marrakech, already reassured of the score, even if the other team was first to score a goal. We knew the referee would give us a penalty just at the right time, even if it was imaginary, just to please the personal guard of the King and to send their compliments. That was how al-Kawkab al-Marrakeshi became the champion, with some honors that were deserved, and some that were achieved by other means. Getting young people to follow the team multiplied its fans. Perhaps al-Kawkab al-Marrakeshi was one of the reasons for the social stability of the Almoravid capital from the late 1980s to mid-1990s.
Once, in Berlin, I was on a panel with the great Algerian novelist Rachid Boujedra, sponsored by the Heinrich Böll Foundation. The Germans who attended the seminar were expecting that a face-to-face meeting of a Moroccan and Algerian would be heated, and, more than that, that we would start judging and blaming each other’s politics. Political tensions between Rabat and El Mouradia Palace were particularly high at the time. But the author of Penalty Shootout set politics and literature aside and surprised the Germans with an amusing conversation about the relationship between Morocco, Algeria, and Germany, starting with football and the contests in our respective home countries. All of us remembered the historic win against Germany in the 1982 World Cup that was hosted in Spain. Algeria was about to move on to the second round—and they would have, if Germany and Austria hadn’t plotted against them, agreeing to a draw and playing a game that lacked sportsmanship, which meant Algeria lost the chance to move to the second round. This was the scandal that led to FIFA’s adoption of a new system, through which the last round of the group stage was played on the same day and time, avoiding any future complicity between the participating teams. And thus a spot in the second round was postponed, for Arab and African football, to the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. There, the Moroccan team was the first Arab and African team to reach the round of 16, before we got knocked out by the Germans. May God forgive them. The Germans are on the lookout for the Maghrebi teams. In fact, our national team held out against the German machines until the last two minutes, before Matthäus scored a goal. During that meeting, shootouts continued to flow, but all of them were licit. Most of them hit the goal and deserved an ovation.
But, what about when the poet applauds the football player? As if it needs a poet like Mahmoud Darwish to publicly declare his adoration for football. Without any hesitation, the poet of the Palestinian cause wrote a beautiful and fine work that was like love poetry for the Argentinian star Diego Maradona: “Strong as a bull. Fast as a missile. He enters the stadium as if entering a church. He sifts through the defense and scores. The star of his time. Doctors won’t find blood in his veins. They will find rocket fuel.”
Ronaldo and Messi have the right to consider themselves unlucky: They missed being watched by that great lover of the game, Mahmoud Darwish.
Yassin Adnan (born in Safi in 1970) has lived in Marrakech since he was a young child. Since 2006, he has researched and hosted his weekly cultural TV program Macharef (Thresholds) on Morocco’s Channel One. Since 2019 he has hosted a new cultural TV program Bayt Yassin (Yassin’s Home) on Al-ghad TV Channel based in Cairo. He is the author of four published collections of poetry in Arabic and also has three short story collections. He co-wrote Marrakech: Open Secrets (2008) with Saad Sarhane. He is the editor of The Moroccan Scheherazade: Testimonies and Studies of Fatima Mernissi (2016), Marrakech: evanescent places (2018), and Marrakech Noir (2018) an anthology of short stories published in English by Akashic Books in New York. His first novel, Hot Maroc (2016), was nominated for The International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2017. It is published in French translation (2020) by Actes Sud. The English translation of Hot Maroc (translated by Alexander Elinson) appeared in August 2021, published by Syracuse University Press.
Hicham Rafik is a young enthusiast, English teacher, chorister, translator and interpreter. He graduated from Mohammed V University with a focus on Cultural Translation.