Posted: 1/8/2007
Title: FOOTBALL LIONS AND THE MARRAKESH EXPRESS

Blog:                                                                                                                         

   At first glance Moroccan League football doesn,t seem too exciting. The league table of 16 clubs is an alphabet soup¨  OCK, WAC, MAT, FAR, DHJ, IZK, KACM, HUSA, MCO, MAS, OCS, BCA, CODM, JSM, ASS, IRT, - not very inspiring I must admit.  However, I decided on a couple of matches to attend at Le Weekend, in Marrakesh and in Fez.

   At Stade El Harti  in a propsperous suburb,  KASM- Marrakesh Red City, were entertaining IRT Tangier on Saturday afternoon. The peach coloured bowl of a stadium on Blvd President Kennedy was about two thirds full, with only about 100 blue and white clad fans from Tangier, a 12 hour drive north.  VIVE KACB, CURVE RED CITY, CRAZY ULTRA BOYS, RED HAND BOYS, MAGIC FANS. These were some of the giant banners they put on the fence, plus lots of Arabic ones. Sponsors banners included Maroc Telecom, Gillette, Adidas, Motorola which are league wide sponsors, plus locals such as Biscuit Rialto, Cafe Astra and Les Residences. Security was tight  but the 7 foot fences around the track were padlocked with no security guards in case of a problem, and a flare was thrown by a fan onto the pitch as the players entered and nobody moved to throw him out. The match was pretty entertaining with lots of skill, but too much play acting, but was well officiated. The fans went home happy with a deserved 1-0 win, and I would put the action on a par with league football I had seen in Honduras  and Guatemala, but not as good as Chile, Mexico or Europes top leagues.

   After a Sunday morning 5.00 am start on the Marrakesh-Fes  air conditioned express train for 8 hours I arrived at Fes to find a hotel within 500 meters for a quick shower and then to Stade Hassan II near the station.  It was crazy outside, and indeed would be a sell out. I found the most bedecked and smartest police officer who personally took me through all the security check points and into the Tribune of Honour and to a small radio press box behind it. The fans of  MAS - Maghrib A Fez -packed the stadium, some did the conga, swaying side to side by other groups, and lots of singing.  FATAL TIGERS, ULTRA OLD BOYS were some of the banners.  Again problems of safety. Fans packed the steps and sat on their prayer mats, and the fencing was padlocked. Surrounding the stadium were giant palm trees,  and cypresses with big storks on the upper branches.

   RAJA Club from Casablanca were no match and were soon 0-1 down to a goal from Wattuisi and after Hicham Aboucharoune was shown a red card by the FIFA referee it was only time before Ait Aizza got a second goal for Fes and the fans were on their feet singing and chanting to the end.

   The Moroccan national THE ATLAS LIONS, has played in 3 World Cups in 1970, 1986 and 1998. At Mexico 70 they lost 2-1 to West Germany, 3-0 to Peru and tied Bulgaria 1-1. A much improved performance in Mexico again in 86 when they actually won their group. They tied both Poland and England 0-0 and beat Portugal 3-1. In the round of 16 West Germany knocked them out 1-0.  At France 98 they tied Norway 2-2 in Montpellier, lost 3-0 to Brazil in Marseilles but hammered Scotland 3-0 in Saint-Etienne. Their only triumph in the African Cup of Nations was way back in 1976.  When attempting to qualify for Spain 82, I had been the guest of RAM-Royal Air Maroc, the previous year, who were hoping fans would stoppover in Casablanca en route to Spain.  I had gone to Kinitra, a small port city up the coast from Rabat, the capital, with some Arab journalists for the Morocco vs Cameroon African group qualifier. The Indomitable Lions were unknown at the time and faced the group favourites, coached by Juste Fontaine, who scored a record 13 goals for France-which used to run Morocco along with Spain, at Sweden World Cup 1958. I was the only photographer sitting behind the Moroccan net in the first half and captured both goals. My Arab journalist friends drove me back to their Rabat office and developed, printed and used my photos, since their cameras were behind the other goal. Whether I got credit or not is unclear, since the newspaper was in Arabic.

   As a FIFA World Cup host nation they are a 3 time loser. USA beat them out for 1994, Germany for 2006, and South Africa for 2010. They even hired a Jew, Alan I. Rothenburg who oversaw FIFA World Cup 1994 in USA, as a consultant.  Morocco is a pretty relaxed place concerning religious freedom, but many jews have left the country and this was a positive step. He had the audacity to say that Morocco was better prepared than England when a FIFA visitor a few years earlier. Really only the national stadium in Casablanca, and a new one under construction in Tangier would be anywhere close to Premier League standards. Friendliness is common in Morocco and it would have offered a warm welcome to world soccer fans, but is unlikely to do so for at least 20 years or more.

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