What happens when politics and grievances take football hostage? The beauty of the game evaporates and leaves a landscape of resentment and hostility.
Rabat – For all its associations with beauty, positive energy, and humane moments that bring together different people and help transcend traditional divides, football can be brutally cruel.
In case you had forgotten that downside part of football, the controversy-soaked match between Morocco’s Wydad of Casablanca and Tunisia’s Esperance de Tunis (EST) should be enough to hammer the point home.
All about football?
A simple footballing rivalry is enough to, even if occasionally, open our eyes to the inescapable hideousness lurking beneath the universally acclaimed virtues of what has come to be known by fans and commentators as “the beautiful game.”
But when politics enters the game, when grievances and perceived attacks on strongly felt notions of identity and pride enter the equation, the confrontation instantly reaches heights that can even baffle some of the fiercest fanatics. “Is this all really about a football game?” the bafflement seems to suggest, as what looked like a flippant, ephemeral expression of rage from fans of both teams invites even more acrimony from political leaders.
This is what has been happening in the Wydad vs. EST fiasco, with politicians and ordinary citizens (not necessarily fans of EST or Wydad) joining in a discussion increasingly framed as a matter of national pride. Underpinning the rage-filled conversation is each side’s unbending faith that it is right.
During the first leg in Rabat, Wydad felt robbed of a deserved victory. The Moroccan team complained about a valid goal and penalty being ruled out by the referee, as well as several refereeing mistakes which seemed to be favoring EST.
At the African Confederation of Football (CAF), the reaction was to punish the referee of that first leg. Furthermore, as is the norm in such circumstances, unarticulated promises were made that the second leg would not witnesses the same fiasco as the first. But scandals often revel in defying expectations, taking everyone off guard, raising tensions, and sparking a scheduled march towards a precipice, any precipice.
After a second leg equally marked by irregularities and a fatal refereeing mishap, CAF first proclaimed EST champions, downright dismissing Wydad’s repeated appeals that the newly introduced video refereeing system, commonly known as VAR, be used to clear out the fog. EST players and fans were exuberant, with a raucous Rades Stadium celebrating another continental crown for the Tunisian side.
But the celebration turned into a festival of resentment and Morocco-trolling three days later, when, after an “urgent” board meeting in Paris, CAF decided that EST were no longer Champions, announcing a rematch to be had on “neutral ground after the upcoming Africa Cup of Nations.”
CAF said its decision came after painstakingly considering many factors, ranging from “technical mishaps” (a reference to a defective VAR) to the low security standards at the stadium on match day. But at this point, CAF had officially come out of sync with the Tunisian public.
If Tunisian media outlets had thunderously lambasted CAF’s prior decision to inexplicably abandon the match and grant EST the trophy, they were now unanimously slandering the rematch decision as even more outrageous than the ostensibly scandalous decision it had ruled against. The idea of a rematch, en masse headlines suggested, bore out the now famous notion that “out of Africa [comes] always something new.”
CAF’s president, the Malagasy Ahmad Ahmad, said in an interview after the Paris meeting that at the heart of CAF’s decision was the belated realization that, even by African football’s own standards of not-so-bright refereeing record, the now dismissed second leg was unforgivably outrageous.
“You simply could not rule out that goal. It was valid from whichever direction you looked at it,” Ahmad said, referring to Wydad’s 59th minute equalizer which the referee had wrongly ruled out for supposed offside. Ahmad’s point, something he has been repeating to whoever would listen since the unprecedented rematch move, is that the Wydad vs. EST match was mired in scandal and irregularities.
It may get worse
CAF, understandably, had it reasons for ruling as it did. But whatever those reasons are, Tunisian officials—and not sporting authorities—have declared them unconvincing. In a particularly vitriolic rebuttal, Tunisia’s Prime Minister shrugged off CAF’s justifications, calling the body’s decision a “farce.”
In PM Youssef Chahed’s eyes, CAF justifying its “farce” by invoking technical mishaps and insufficient security was only meant to be an attack on Tunisia’s pride as a proven organizer of events bigger than a CAF Champions League game.
“After the CAF farce: salutation to our army and police, who have been a good example for the whole world, and whoever is talking about this should take responsibility for it,” the Tunisian PM wrote.
Hichem El Fourati, the North African country’s Minister of the Interior, echoed his prime minister’s sentiment. El Fourati said that security is at the forefront of Tunisia’s political culture and that the country has “successfully organized” a number of global events with far higher stakes than a CAF Champions League.
Besides, a statement from the interior ministry settled, “Why did the referee start the game in the first place” if, as CAF has said, security and logistics requirements were not met?
But that is only the tip of the iceberg of the Tunisian rage. Reading social media reactions, there have been statements questioning Morocco’s claims on Western Sahara, the usual middle finger move that Morocco critics—mostly pro-Polisario circles—quickly call upon when confronting Moroccan interests.
There have even been some untraditional slurs, from Moroccan girls being “easy girls,” to Morocco itself being a country that thrives on “sexual tourism.”
Such slanders often come from places thought to be at loggerheads with Morocco on a wide range of issues, mainly geopolitical. But Tunisia does not qualify as a Moroccan “enemy” or adversary. If anything, Tunisia and Morocco see eye to eye on a number of regional issues, with many observers labeling the two countries the exceptions in an otherwise undemocratic and crisis-prone neighborhood.
In a recent column, Moroccan journalist Karim Boukahri eloquently drove the point home when he said that many citizens in both countries are puzzled by the growing hostility between two traditionally friendly nations.
Beyond the unfortunate politicization of “a simple football match,” Boukhari contends, is the reality of the other side of football, the confrontational and divisive side which sports pundits and fans seldom consider.
As much as it galvanizes and brings about beautiful moments of collective joy and elation, the “beautiful game” is as inherently divisive and toxic as any other human activity that thrives on emotional attachment and elicits group belonging and identity.
“All this suggests that the worst is yet to come,” Boukhari regretfully remarked, tapping into the inescapable excesses and toxicity of football. He went on to add that given all the voracious reactions surrounding the rematch, it is sure that the next confrontation will not be approached as a football game.
“The match will no longer oppose two clubs, but two nations, two cultures…. Defeat will feel like losing one’s honor, betraying one’s people, or selling one’s soul to the devil.”
This is hideously true—and alarming enough. Just imagine what degree the hostility would take if Tunisia and Morocco were to play at some stage (at the semi-finals or final) of the upcoming Africa Cup of Nations. The stakes of the confrontation would be raised far higher for national honor and cultural pride-clocked hostility between two countries.
Whatever happens at this year’s CAN, the EST vs. Wydad rematch is bound to be more than a football game. With politics taking center stage, there may follow a degree of zeal bound to border on reckless disregard for the boundaries of the usual football rivalry.