Morocco and Spain are playing the round of 16 of the World Cup today at 4 pm, after having obtained rather surprising results in the previous phase: Morocco had in fact qualified in first place in a group in which Croatia and Belgium were, second and third at the 2018 World Cup; Spain had qualified as runners-up after losing to Japan in their final group stage match, and having gone from being first to virtually eliminated from the tournament within minutes.
Morocco-Spain is a match that is attracting great attention in both countries, both for the importance of the sporting event (whoever wins will go to the quarter-finals) and for the fact that it will be a “rare” match, so to speak. The sides have only met three times in the past: twice in the 1960s – both times Spain won – and most recently in the group stage of the 2018 World Cup, when they finished 2-2, a result which determined the passage of Spain to the round and the elimination of Morocco.
But there’s also a whole other piece of history, which doesn’t concern sport. Morocco and Spain are two neighboring countries, with an established and solid collaboration but also with moments of political tension that periodically reappears, above all linked to disagreements on the management of migrants. In fact, the two countries share land borders, the only ones between Europe and Africa: they are the ones that separate the Spanish exclaves of Melilla and Ceuta, two cities located on the Moroccan coast, from the rest of Morocco. The division is sanctioned by a barrier called “go ahead” (the one that occasionally ends up in the international newspapers due to the attempts of migrants to “skip it”), where Spain often implements highly controversial pushbacks, considered by many to be illegal.
Spain and Morocco will be a match between players who know each other, and who in many cases speak the same language. “The Spaniards on the pitch will have to speak softly” he wrote L’team «because many players in Morocco speak the language of Cervantes [lo spagnolo]».
There are four Moroccan footballers who play for Spanish club teams, and several others who have played for them in the past. Forward Abde Ezzalzouli has lived in Spain since he was seven and strong winger Achraf Hakimi was born in Madrid. In the Moroccan team’s staff there are also some Spanish people and others with dual nationality.
Munir Mohamedi, the second goalkeeper – who however became a regular in the match against Belgium – was born in Melilla, one of the two Spanish exclaves in Morocco, and started playing football in Ceuta, which is an hour and a half away by car from Tangier. Walid Regragui, the 47-year-old coach, was born in France but raised in Fnidq, the closest Moroccan city to the Ceuta border. At the football level, he was trained in Spain playing in Racing Santander, a team that played in La Liga, the main Spanish league, which is more followed in Morocco than the local one.
Rabie Takassa works for the Moroccan football federation, who has the task of following Moroccan footballers in Spain, when needed, also trying to convince those with dual nationality to choose Morocco instead of Spain. Takassa has explained that by now “at least three or four Spanish-Moroccan players play in every category of the Moroccan national team”, and it is a percentage destined to grow.
More generally, official numbers say that just under 800,000 people of Moroccan nationality live in Spain, which makes the Moroccan community the main foreign community in Spain, whose inhabitants are about 47 million.
On the other hand, at least one hundred thousand Spaniards live between Ceuta and Melilla, two territories that are periodically subject to great tensions and find themselves at the center of diplomatic disputes between Spain and Morocco. In May 2021, for example, the Moroccan government loosened its border controls with Spain in retaliation against a decision by the Spanish government relating to Western Sahara, in which there is a strong nationalist movement demanding independence from Morocco. Furthermore, until 1956, the entire Mediterranean coast of Morocco was part, together with another territory in the south of the country, of a Spanish protectorate created at the beginning of the twentieth century.
In Ceuta there is generally a peaceful coexistence between people of different nationalities and religions, albeit with often complex events and more problematic areas than others. Associated Press he wrote recently that it is “a place where identities mix in unpredictable ways, even as regards football support”.
Mohamed Laarbi, a 28-year-old bar manager in Ceuta, is a third-generation Spaniard. He will support Spain and said that whatever the result, he doesn’t expect the match to become a prerequisite for clashes similar to those that took place in Brussels after Morocco’s victory against Belgium. However, Laarbi said that for many, in Ceuta and Melilla, identity is a complex issue: “Moroccans say we are not from Morocco, but Spaniards from the Iberian Peninsula say we are not Spanish.”
Mohamed Et Touzani, a 35-year-old hairdresser, was born in Morocco, lived for years in Spain and then went to work in Ceuta, despite living – like many other people of Moroccan nationality or origin – south of the border. He said that he will support Morocco, that he will go to see the match in a “Christian” bar in Ceuta and added: “Football is football, politics is politics”.
The match itself sees Spain favourites, but Morocco not doomed at all. Spain undoubtedly have more talented players, but the loss to Japan may have put doubts and cracks in a team that made its World Cup debut with a 7-0 win against Costa Rica. Morocco has already done better than expected by many, moreover with a game that at times was quite appreciated and effective. Although the teams are obviously very different, the only recent precedent is a draw.
Spain has so far distinguished itself for a game based on constant ball possession, largely a legacy of the one made popular a few years ago by Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, a team in which coach Luis Enrique trained in football, who coaches the Spain since 2018. El País presented today’s match talking about a “non-negotiable” Spain, based on the inflexible premise of control of the game with ball possession.
Morocco, on the other hand, has a game that is more open to compromises, also as a result of how and when Walid Regragui – sometimes introduced like the “Guardiola of Morocco” – was chosen as coach. In fact, Regragui arrived only on August 31 of this year, after having won the African Champions Cup with Wydad Casablanca.
Regragui was called at the last minute, when it was decided to replace the Bosnian coach Vahid Halilhodzic, who despite having qualified for the World Cup had several management problems. In fact, Morocco is spoken of as a group which, until Halilhodzic coached it, was full of contrasts and internal feuds, and which above all was marked by the choice not to call up Hakim Ziyech, one of the team’s most talented players. “I wouldn’t call him up even if he were Messi,” Halilhodzic said of him.
Regragui, on the other hand, is said to have an excellent relationship with the team – even with Ziyech – and he said of himself: «Over time I’ve changed my tactical strategy, before I put a lot of emphasis on ball possession, but now I’m more pragmatic».
If Morocco progress, it would be their best ever result at the World Cup and equal the best result ever achieved by an African team.
For Spain, who won the World Cup in 2010, it would be a step forward compared to the disappointing results of the last two editions. Among other things – also on the basis of other results of matches that have yet to be played – if Spain wins, it could find two other countries with which it borders in the quarter-finals and semi-finals: Portugal and France. And finally, possibly Argentina, with which, among other things, it shares the spoken language.