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Club World Cup: Hosts Morocco want to impress FIFA after heroic deeds in Qatar

Less than two months after Morocco’s extraordinary success at the World Cup in Qatar, the North African nation finds itself back at the heart of world football as hosts of the Club World Cup.

From Wednesday until February 11, a series of matches will be played in the Moroccan capital Rabat and the northern port city of Tangier, featuring winning clubs from Brazil, Egypt, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, Spain, the United States and Morocco itself.

The opening game will be between Al Ahly and Auckland City in Tangiers, but what Moroccan fans are most looking forward to is a clash on 4 February in Rabat between Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal and Wydad AC, Morocco’s most famous club.

“Our infrastructure needs to be upgraded over the next six years to be ready to host an event of World Cup scale.”

– Idir Moukhlis, Wydad AC fan

Tickets for this game and other high-profile games sold out within hours of going on sale on January 20, causing frustration among fans. Some even went to Reddit to find tickets.

Idir Moukhlis, a project manager and Wydad fan in the Middle Atlas town of Ifrane, intends to watch the Club World Cup on TV after missing an opportunity to buy tickets.

“I’m proud, especially since Wydad qualified as the champions of the African continent and not as the host country team,” he told Middle East Eye.

“I really hope they advance as much as possible in the tournament and why not win on home soil?”

No Moroccan club has ever won the Club World Cup; The closest it came was when Raja Casablanca finished second a decade ago.

Still, Morocco has history with the tournament – the kingdom has hosted twice before, in 2013 and 2014.

skepticism of the fans

Moroccan fans hope a smooth Club World Cup could boost Morocco’s standing to host the 2030 World Cup itself.

Among them is Souhaila Adrif, a Wydad supporter and journalist covering tonight’s game for Le Journal de Tanger.

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“The Club World Cup and its success is a strong indicator strengthening Morocco’s position and ability to host the 2030 World Cup, especially after Lions’ victories in Qatar,” she said.

However, other fans remain skeptical after the failure of the kingdom’s five previous World Cup bids.

“We have enough stadiums, but our infrastructure needs upgrading over the next six years to be ready to host an event of World Cup scale,” Moukhlis told MEE.

In 2018, Fifa inspectors visited Morocco to assess its suitability to host the 2026 World Cup. Their report raised questions about the ability of Moroccan airports and trains to ferry fans between a dozen cities set to host matches.

The main public transport to two of these cities, Nador and Oujda, is a twice-daily train that makes the 10-hour journey from Casablanca, Morocco’s largest city and home to the main international airport.

Not quite done

Maddie August, an American architect from the inland city of Fez who is planning to attend a Club World Cup match in Tangier, took a train to Nador last year.

“The night train was certainly an experience,” she said. “Leaving Fez at 2am and stumbling into Nador at 8am was exhausting and cold and felt very unworthy.”

Three of Morocco’s proposed cities for the 2026 World Cup – Agadir in the south, Ouarzazate in the south-central belt and Tetouan in the north – have no passenger trains at all. Nonetheless, Morocco has made some important improvements to its infrastructure in recent years.

In 2018, the Kingdom launched Africa’s first bullet train, Al Boraq. The train cut the Rabat-Tangier journey from over five hours to one hour and 20 minutes. At the same time, the Fifa report expressed skepticism that Morocco could expand Al Boraq to Marrakech and Agadir by its self-imposed 2025 deadline.

Jasper Branckaerts, a Belgian studying Arabic in Tangier, reflected on these challenges as he prepared for Wednesday’s opening match of the Club World Cup.

“I think the World Cup is an event on a different level,” he told MEE. “It’s more of a natural disaster. Almost all eyes in the world are on the World Cup, even if you’re not interested in sports at all.

“I am not sure that Morocco – at least for the moment – has the capacity to give what is necessary to maintain this standard.”

Political problems

The kingdom has many reasons to worry about prying eyes. Qatar’s successful bid for the 2022 World Cup prompted condemnation of the Gulf monarchy’s dubious record on free speech, gay rights, labor rights and even the sale of alcohol.

Morocco would face many of the same problems if chosen to host 2030. A second Fifa report on Morocco’s bid for the 2026 World Cup cited “unexplored risks” arising from Morocco’s approach to human rights, and gay rights in particular.

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Morocco’s diplomatic stances could also undermine its standing as a potential host. In the past, African countries like Namibia and South Africa have turned down the kingdom’s World Cup bids over its claim to Western Sahara.

“The opposition of these countries is political and has nothing to do with sport,” argued Adrif, the journalist in Tangier.

“These countries are known for their support for neighboring Algeria’s agenda of dividing Morocco and taking from it a substantial part of its body, the Moroccan Sahara.”

At times, the Moroccan bids themselves have become sources of controversy.

A 2015 Sunday Times investigation suggested that while Morocco’s 2010 World Cup proposal received the most votes, Fifa awarded the tournament to South Africa after some unspecified intrigues. Both countries have been accused of handing out bribes to Fifa officials but have denied the allegations.

Morocco has repeatedly had to deny allegations of bribing Fifa officials dating back to its 1998 World Cup bid.

animal welfare concerns

Last month, Morocco’s decade-long World Cup saga took its latest bizarre turn.

On January 26, Morocco World News reported that Tangier authorities had started killing stray dogs ahead of the Club World Cup. Four days later, The Daily Beast published gruesome video of a campaign that had claimed the lives of hundreds of dogs at the time.

The Daily Beast linked the politics to the impending arrival of Fifa inspectors reviewing Morocco’s 2030 World Cup bid.

“It is unfathomable to witness such atrocity in Tangier and in 2023,” said Hajar Laarichi, a Wydad fan in Casablanca.

“I lived in Tangier for six years and saw dogs living with people. Being completely fired for 10 days to host a football event clearly shows that Moroccan interests are misplaced.”

In 2018, the news media highlighted a similar incident related to that year’s Fifa inspection. Locals claimed Moroccan authorities killed dozens of dogs in the resort towns of Aourir, Tamraght and Taghazout, which neighbor Agadir.

Could Algeria be the answer?

Amid these scandals and obstacles, Morocco’s best hope of hosting the 2030 World Cup may come from an unlikely place: Algeria, its rival on and off the pitch.

Despite historic tensions between Algeria and Morocco over Western Sahara, in 2018 Algiers indicated their willingness to bid alongside Morocco and Tunisia for the 2030 World Cup.

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Some pundits have endorsed the idea to address Fifa’s concerns about Moroccan infrastructure, and Moroccans themselves may share that enthusiasm.

Last month, the Arab Barometer published the results of a poll showing that a majority of Moroccans support reopening their country’s borders with Algeria, an indication of the warm relations between the two peoples.

Zakaria Hatimi, a college student from the commuter town of Sale who will be attending Wydad’s Feb. 4 duel with Al Hilal, supports the joint bid proposal.

“Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia are like one country,” Hatimi told MEE. “We have the same traditions and lifestyle, and our union is power.”

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TOI.News Team
TOI.News Team
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