Morocco’s Raja Athletic Club crushed DR Congo’s Vita Club in the first leg of the African Confederation Cup final on Sunday, sealing Casablanca’s boys’ return to continental glory after over a decade of drought.
Rabat- It was a sobering night in Casablanca, one of those moments when a game of football can bring together people of different walks of life, making social class irrelevant as the crowd shouts like one to elicit a winning display from their boys.
Since 2003, the year it claimed its last African cup and when the name Raja was associated with class and mastery in African football, continental victory has eluded the green boys of Casablanca. Despite being good at times and maintaining a steady reputation as one of the top two Moroccan football teams, Raja has been dealt continuous blows, ranging from internal crises to poor output in continental tournaments that mattered.
But Sunday was different. It had to be.
Receiving DR Congo’s Vita Club, Coach Garrido’s boys knew that having the match in Casablanca was an opportunity to deny the slightest upper hand to a Congolese team known for being deadly on home ground.
Rajaoui’s boys’ mission on Sunday, their coach later revealed to the press as he indulged in his team’s victory, was to claim the three points needed to have some breathable atmosphere before Sunday’s return leg in Kinshasa.
In football, as in life, there are moments when victory is not just about putting in the required performance to claim the points you need to get ahead, or win, in the tournament or competition.
There are defining moments when winning is all that matters, regardless of the rewards that that might bring. Or perhaps the reward is implicit in the very act of winning. It might be for pride. Or the fear of disappointing those who have faith in you, and stood by you even in the most ominous of occasions. Or the urge to rewrite history, or be part of it. Or the urgency to do what is necessary to end a chewing crisis.
It is difficult to pin down which of these points really counted in Raja’s riotous victory against their Congolese counterparts. Let’s just say it was a combination of all those factors, each playing a sizable part in the ultimate composition of the story.
But there was, too, something else at play on Sunday: the disarming determination of Raja’s fans. In the most incipient moments of the game, when victory seemed impossible, distant, it was the football-crazy 50,000 green and red onlookers that crafted the narrative of hope the players lacked–and needed.
Soufiane Rahimi, the 22-year-old whose brace proved crucial in opening the floodgates that ultimately sunk the traditionally compact Vita defense, spoke of family and pride and identity. For the young forward, games like Sunday’s go beyond the realm of football.
In matches like that, he opined, you think of your family and everyone else who made it possible for you to be where you are. You don’t play just because it is your own passion or your profession. Deep down, you play for the joy and happiness of the thousands who left their activities to come motivate you. And when you do win, he explained, his face still beaming with the afterglow of an exceptional night, the feeling is a mixture of emotion and affiliation.
“I am over the moon…. We stayed focused and I’m really happy to have been part of all this, to have helped my teammates land the victory.”
But the young Moroccan was aware that the second leg might—will surely—bring a tougher challenge against an opponent used to home victory. His thrill for playing a key role in his team’s dominant display should not be reason for complacency, he elaborated. When Raja travels to DR Congo this weekend to take on Vita on Sunday, the goal will be to pressure their opponents as relentlessly as possible. Like on Sunday.
Rahimi’s caution was well placed, considering that the game on Sunday was a deadlock until minute 46. For 45 minutes during the first half, the Congolese were defensively impeccable, foiling Raja’s endless attempts to find a crack in their tactical disposition.
At which point, as the Congolese gave no impression of surrendering to Raja’s ferocious attacking vitality, the public, the twelfth man, chimed in.
Riotous, shouting chants that brought vigor and accuracy and courage and rigor to a game that seemed to be marching toward a lifeless draw, the crowd rekindled the players’ spirit. Raja’s boys, cheered up by a demanding public of nearly 50,000 football-mad, picked up accuracy and organization in the second half.
From then on, as Raja now played to meet the demands of a fan base that has stood by them through trials and errors, loyal to the point of unreasonable fanaticism—the pleonasm is warranted in this case—things started to go from bad to worse for the Congolese.
Down 1-0 at the 47th minute, 2-0 at the 61th minute, Vita players felt visibly powerless before the strength that a supportive crowd can prove. The third goal was merely a matter of time now. Vita looked besieged, beleaguered, and recognizably desperate. Few teams can resist the disarming energy of a fan base as besotted as Raja’s.
And when that third goal came, at the 66th minute, time seemed to have stopped at the Mohammed V stadium. Nothing else existed. Nothing else could be heard. Nothing else mattered, except for the phenomenal return to continental glory. The stadium, covered in green and red, erupted in excited chants as an enamored rajaoui public celebrated the kind of victory that had eluded them for 15 years.
Mohamed Oulhaj, the former Raja captain who is now in his tenth season with the Casablanca-based team, said that Raja’s Sunday’s victory should resonate with all Moroccans. Raja, Oulhaj explained, played for the pride of Moroccan football.
After all the fuss that accompanied Morocco’s victory at the 2018 CHAN and Wydad’s triumph at the 2017-2018 African Champions League, it is hard to argue against Oulhaj’s point.