Spain and Morocco are united and divided by their sporting and cultural connections

The Athletic has live coverage of Morocco vs. Spain in Round of 16 play at the 2022 World Cup 

Just 13 kilometres separate Spain and Morocco, and the continents of Europe and Africa, across the narrowest point in the Mediterranean Sea.

That means many close cultural, sporting and familial connections between the two countries, who meet in Tuesday’s World Cup 2022 round of 16, but also a wide political and economic divide.

Moroccan squad members Achraf Hakimi and Munir Mohamedi were both born in Spain, while four of the Atlas Lions’ 26 play their club football with La Liga outfits, including Sevilla’s Yassine Bounou and Youssef En-Nesyri. Coach Walid Regragui also played for then-Primera Division side Racing Santander from 2004 to 2006.

“Yes, we have players who play in Spain,” Regragui told the pre-game news conference in Doha. “It is a country which is very important to Moroccans. And we have Spanish-born players, but they are Moroccan.”

Relationships between the respective governments in Madrid and Rabat are often difficult, and the build-up to the game has seen some nasty anti-Moroccan rhetoric on social media and on the extreme fringes of political discourse.

“We don’t look for any conflict to provide extra motivation,” Regragui said when asked if he had seen what some in Spain had been saying. “We do not need extra motivation. We are playing for Morocco and our country, and now we have extra support from the Arab world and from Africa.”

That was a nod to Morocco being the last Arab or African team left in this year’s competition, not a hint that his team will have wider support against its former colonial power.

Back-up goalkeeper Munir also did the FIFA press conference, as a native Spanish speaker, but his unique status among the 14 Morocco players who were born outside its current political borders did not come up.

Before detailing that unique status, a quick history and geography lesson might be needed.

Ceuta and Melilla are two port cities on the north African coast, which are now part of Spain, but surrounded by Morocco.

The reasons for this date back to the 15th and 16th centuries when European explorers and empire builders were colonising much of the African continent, after the ‘Reconquista’ when centuries-long Islamic Moorish rule over much of the Iberian peninsula was ended. Melilla was captured by Spanish forces in 1497, while in 1415 Ceuta became ‘Portuguese’, before the Spanish crown was ‘granted’ the city by a treaty in 1640.  

Fast forward to the 20th century and between 1912 and 1956, Spain and France jointly ruled a large area of north-western Africa which included much of today’s Morocco. However Ceuta and Melilla were not included in this ‘protectorate’. Instead, they had the status of Spanish territory, not unlike British-ruled Gibraltar on the other side of the Mediterranean.

When Morocco gained independence in 1956, Spain retained ‘ownership’ of both cities, which had majority Spanish speaking populations. Spanish law views them as ‘autonomous cities’ with similar competencies to autonomous regions like Catalonia or Andalusia.

Being the only areas of the European Union on the African continent has made Ceuta and Melilla be seen as a possible point of access for people from further south in Africa looking to get into Europe. This had led to the Spanish authorities erecting fortifications around both enclaves, most infamously the six-metre-high fence separating Melilla from a migrant camp on nearby Gurugu mountain. There has also been tension between the Spanish and Moroccan governments over what is referred to officially in Rabat as ‘occupied Ceuta’ and ‘occupied Melilla’.

Recent years have seen many fatal incidents as migrants, mostly but not all from sub-Saharan Africa, have tried to scale the Melilla fence. There have also been regular accusations of human rights breaches by both Spanish and Moroccan security forces. In June 2022, a breakdown in security led to the death of many migrants trying to cross into the EU. The Spanish authorities put the number of deaths at 23, while human rights groups say at least 37 people died.

Both the Spanish and Moroccan governments have so far resisted calls for an independent investigation of what actually happened, while far-right Spanish political party VOX have also used the tragedy to try and gain support for their radically anti-immigrant policies.

The possibility of such tragic events taking place was an everyday reality growing up for Munir, who was born in May 1989 in Melilla, to parents of Moroccan heritage.

As a teenager, he played in the youth systems of both AD Ceuta and UD Melilla. He even played for Ceuta against his home city club Melilla at Under-18 level — a derby where the teams have to pass through, over, or around 400 kilometres of Morocco to get from one city to the other.

He broke into the first team at his home city club, playing in Spain’s semi-pro third tier from 2010-11 to 2013-14, where all rivals were based across the Mediterranean in Andalusia, including Cadiz, Murcia and the B teams of Primera sides Sevilla and Real Betis. He also played against Primera side Levante in the Copa del Rey, keeping a clean sheet in a 1-0 win at the 8,000 capacity Estadio Alvarez Claro in January 2012.

In summer 2014, Munir moved up a division by signing for Segunda side Numancia, and the following March was contacted by the Moroccan federation about representing them. He knew he qualified via his family, although he then had to formally request citizenship.

After establishing himself as Morocco’s first-choice goalkeeper, he played against Spain at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the third game of the group stage, with the North African side already eliminated. Speaking to Malaga Hoy after that very dramatic game finished 2-2, he admitted to very mixed feelings during the game.

Morocco’s forward Khalid Boutaib scores against Spain in the 2018 World Cup Group (Photo: PATRICK HERTZOG/AFP via Getty Images)

“I was born in Melilla, I am obviously Spanish and feel Spanish, but I felt a call in my blood and my background,” Munir said. “I wish Spain the best, except when they play Morocco. It was different and special. In one way I wanted Spain to qualify, as we were already out, but I also wanted to win for pride. It was peculiar.”

Munir then moved on to play for Malaga — for whom he won the ‘Zamora’ trophy for the Segunda Division’s best goalkeeper during the 2019-20 season. While playing for Malaga he lived in the Costa del Sol resort town of Benalmadena, which he had often visited as a kid, with families in Melilla offered subsidised tickets by the Spanish government to cross the Mediterranean by boat or plane.

Such easy access to Europe is obviously not possible for many others who are born in Africa. Like everyone else growing up in Melilla, Munir has said he was well aware of people outside the city risking their lives to jump the fence to get onto Spanish territory.

“You can’t imagine what must be going on in their countries to want to do that,” Munir told El Heraldo de Soria in 2014. “You feel bad in your body, seeing them jump the fence makes you think, that will to get across any obstacle put in front of them, whatever it takes.”

Another side of the shared experience has been lived by Hakimi, who was born in Madrid in 1998, to parents who had moved legally to Spain from Morocco before he was born. 

Hakimi’s football talent was clear, and he was recruited by Real Madrid’s La Fabrica academy aged just seven. Despite the allure of free Estadio Santiago Bernabeu tickets to watch Raul Gonzalez, Sergio Ramos and company, he and his brothers were fans of his local club Getafe — where their hero was winger Morocco international winger Abdelaziz Barrada.

In La Fabrica, Hakimi went by the culturally neutral name ‘Arra’, but his background was an issue. In 2015, he was banned from playing for Madrid’s Castilla youth side when FIFA (mistakenly) assumed he was one of the foreign youngsters signed in breach of the cross-border youth transfers.

Achraf Hakimi celebrates scoring for PSG (Photo: Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

On the pitch, there were no issues with recognition by the system. In December 2015, he scored a hat-trick for a Madrid Under-18 selection against their Catalan counterparts. He was also called-up for a Spanish U-19 training camp, which was held at the national federation’s HQ at Las Rozas, near the upper class suburb of Majadahonda where his father still worked at the time on a stall in a street market.

“I was in Las Rozas a few days, and saw that for me it was not the right place, I did not feel at home,” Hakimi told Marca this week. “There was no concrete reason, just what I felt. It was not what I had grown up with at home, which was Arab culture, Moroccan. I wanted to be here.”

There was no such hesitancy when the Moroccan federation called. He was still just 17 when he made a full international debut against Canada in Marrakech in October 2016. During World Cup 2018, Hakimi played all three games for Morocco — including the 2-2 draw against a Spain team including his Madrid colleagues Sergio Ramos and Daniel Carvajal.

At club level, Hakimi did not feel he was given enough opportunities to show his worth at Madrid. After just nine La Liga starts, and two goals, he pushed to move. First on loan to Borussia Dortmund in 2018, and then a €43million move to Inter Milan, from whom he joined Paris Saint-Germain in 2021 for €68million.

Even after breaking into the Madrid first team while still a teenager, he still suffered racism because he had a Moroccan name and aspect.

“Even with my Spanish ID card and passport, it didn’t matter,” Hakimi told El Mundo in 2019. “They see an Arab name. They see your Moroccan face. Whether they want to or not, they do racist things, without even realising. I noticed it and I still notice it. I can be leaving the Bernabeu, in a nice car, with a cap on, or going out to eat with friends… and the police stop you. They think we are people who rob cars. You can understand it, but it always happens to the same people, foreigners. They don’t stop a white Spanish person.” 

Hakimi’s wife Hiba Abouk is an actress, born in Madrid to parents who had migrated from Tunisia, who has also spoken about having suffered discrimination. The couple have used their very popular social media accounts to celebrate Muslim festivals and support causes they care about.

Ahead of this World Cup, Hakimi and Abouk featured on the cover of Vogue Arabia, a sign of their huge celebrity across the Arab world. “It’s like you play for your grandfather and their grandfathers,” he said in that interview. “You play for millions of Moroccans.”

Amid the wealth and trappings of his current status, football has kept bringing Hakimi reminders of his background. Playing for Morocco has also meant away games in countries where there are deep social and political issues including Mali, Central African Republic, Mauritania and Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“For better or worse I come from a continent, Africa, which is the third world,” he told El Mundo. “With the Moroccan team you travel to many countries. You realise what life is like there. You see they suffer, they try to leave for something better. It really hurts me, but at the same time it motivates me to keep battling. And to think of how fortunate I am with what I have.”

There will be another direct link to Melilla in Tuesday’s game, on the Spanish side.

La Roja’s new wide attacker Nico Williams was born in the Basque city of Pamplona, after his Ghanaian parents had jumped the fence in Melilla in search of a better future for their family, as his brother Inaki told The Athletic before the tournament.



Inaki Williams: ‘My parents risked their lives to provide for me and Nico – World Cup is for them’

Luis Enrique’s 26-man squad also includes Ansu Fati, who was born in Guinea-Bissau, and moved to Andalusia as a small boy. Young left-back Alejandro Balde was born in Barcelona, after his Guinea-Bissau born father moved to Catalonia as an economic migrant.

Ansu and Balde will likely start Tuesday’s game as substitutes, as will Morocco’s Abde Ezzalzouli, who they know well. 20-year-old attacker Abde, currently on loan from Barca at Osasuna, was born in the southern Moroccan city of Beni-Mellal. He moved to Spain aged four, and grew up in Carrus, a neighbourhood of Elche where more than one third of the population are immigrants from either Africa, Eastern Europe or South America, and which is the poorest municipality in Spain according to government figures.

Still, everyone around the Morocco team has been very keen to play down any extra political or cultural edges to Tuesday’s game, with the most important thing being pride in representing their country on such a huge stage and focus on giving their best in the game. 

“It is something unique, to play for your country,” said Achraf this week. “For me and for many team-mates the game against Spain is special as we have been born, lived or played there. We are going to fight for our colours and our fans.”

(Top photo: Michael Regan – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

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