On Monday night in Russia's Kaliningrad Stadium, Morocco played Spain in another thrilling FIFA World Cup match. It was the first time the two countries—which have had a love-hate relationship for over a millennium—met since a two-legged 1962 World Cup playoffs tie. Nowhere on earth—with the exception of Ceuta—had the match such political resonances than in Melilla, which is, along with Ceuta, a Spanish enclave on Moroccan soil.
Melilla, with its wide boulevards, modernist buildings and tapas bars, has a distinctly Spanish feel. Palm trees abound. One of its streets is named after Juan Carlos I, the Spanish monarch (who abdicated in 2014 to make way for his son, Felipe VI). The city, which has a population touching 80,000, leans towards its Mediterranean port and the magnificent medieval fortress that overlooks it. The city has been part of Spain for centuries.
"Melilla is a city that was conquered in 1497 by Pedro de Estopinan," says Aloisio, a Melilla-born veteran of over a decade playing in Spain's professional divisions and other international leagues.
"Everybody feels Spanish here. It's also true there is a huge link between Melilla and Morocco on every level—economically and socially. A lot of people cross the border every day. It's a good relationship, similar to the situation in Northern Ireland, or the relationship between Badajoz, in the southwest of Spain—where I played football—and neighbouring Portugal."
Aloisio, 39, has just finished a stint working as an assistant coach in Qatar alongside the former Real Madrid player, Michel Salgado. His full name is Mohamed Hamed Al-Lal, but like many Spanish footballers he's known by his nickname. His mixed background is typical of many of Melilla's sons. He was born in the city, as was his father, but his grandparents are Moroccan. The mix adds some spice to Monday's football match.
"Obviously, there is a football rivalry," says Aloisio. "For example, Spanish Muslims here would want Morocco to win, but the big majority of people would be cheering for Spain to win. Here in Melilla, more than on the peninsula [the Spanish mainland] because of our geographical circumstances we would want Spain to win."
Because there are few residents who recall the countries' last encounter back in 1961, there is a sense before the match kicks off of entering into the unknown. The fact that Morocco's team is stacked with players who play in Spain, including two of their goalkeepers—Bono plays with Girona in La Liga, and Munir, who was born in Melilla, for Numancia—adds to the sense of a dual identity.
There have been flashpoints between Morocco and Spain over its disputed territories. Along with Melilla and Ceuta, there is a cluster of islands, including Perejil, which are largely uninhabited except for Spanish soldiers. In 2002, a Moroccan naval ship seized Perejil, the smallest of the islands, a minor international incident which brought to mind Jorge Luis Borges' comment that the Falklands War was a fight between "two bald men over a comb."
"It's a tiny island, basically only a rock," says Manuel Vega, editor-in-chief of the city's newspaper, El Faro de Melilla. "The government in Morocco decided to take it. Spain responded by sending in military helicopters. Spain had sovereignty, so it took it back. The Spanish prime minister at the time, Jose Maria Aznar, said: 'You, get lost.' There was no violence."
Vega, who has spent the majority of his life living on the Spanish mainland, makes an interesting distinction when comparing the political relationship between the Moroccan state and Spain over the Spanish enclaves and the situation with nearby Gibraltar, which is a slice of Great Britain on the Spanish peninsula.
"It's different—the relationship between the United Kingdom and Spain," he says. "Spain recognises Gibraltar as a British territory although we Spaniards don't like that. It was an agreement made a long time ago—after the War of the Spanish Succession in the early 1700s. Spain has tried many times to recover it. The difference is that Morocco doesn't recognise Melilla and Ceuta as Spanish territories, but the relationship between the Moroccan king and the Spanish king is good. Morocco accepts the situation with Melilla and Ceuta, but it doesn't officially recognise it."
When it comes to football rivalries, Vega's colleague Jose Perez, the sports editor at the newspaper, says the atmosphere for the match would be more heated in the bars of Morocco than in Melilla's. He says most fans will watch the game in their homes.
"In a sporting context, I would say Moroccans live football more passionately than here in Melilla," says Perez. "If Morocco were to win, they would celebrate it everywhere probably. Here it is just seen as a match. I know it's weird, but here fanaticism doesn't exist. It's totally different to the rest of Spain, too. We will watch the match at night, and the next day everybody goes to work. Everything goes on as normal.
"Only in certain cases like when Spain won the World Cup in 2010 did everybody celebrate—Muslims, Christians, women, children, everyone was watching the final. But it's not like on the Spanish mainland where people will fight with each other—they kill each other—over football."
My allegiances were divided. I watched the first half of the game with some of the "socios" (members) of the city's Real Madrid "pena" (supporters' club), which was founded in 1963, making it the first Real Madrid fan club to be formed outside the Spanish mainland. It has some 80 members and marshals an impressive roster of about 800 under-age and adult footballers in regional leagues.
The president of Pena Real Madrid de Melilla flew to Russia to watch the match. Jesus Serrano Ros, vice-president of the pena, hosted me. He has some traits of the best kind of Spanish man—he's warm, irreverent and hospitable—and has a Forrest Gump-like connection with many of Spain's most famous footballers.
As a defender growing up in Malaga, he once played against Juanito, one of Real Madrid's iconic players. He has also seen Fernando Hierro, Spain's coach, and a young Isco, the jewel of Spain's current national team, play in the flesh as kids in Malaga. As we drive across Melilla to the pena, he points out where the girlfriend of Lucas Vazquez, another Spain star, grew up.
The pena is peppered with about 15 people in its bar glued to the match. Food and drink are served up. "This is a war," blurts Jesus midway through the first half, as Spain quickly equalised after Morocco took an early lead. He admits that the fortunes of the Spain national team mean more to him than a Real Madrid triumph. This is unusual in Spanish football culture but reflective of sentiment among the football community in Melilla. When I spoke recently with Inako Diaz-Guerra, a journalist with El Mundo, he said 95 percent of Spain's football fans choose their club over country.
Jesus is in giddy form—singing Beatles lyrics with a heavy Spanish accent—as he drops me back to my hotel at half-time. From there I can get a short taxi ride to the old part of the city to watch the second half of the match in Club Scorpio, a bar where some members of the Friends of Morocco Association had gathered.
As we pass by the city's Barcelona pena, Jesus roars out the window at a few guys standing outside the main door smoking: "Gracias a Isco! (Thanks to Isco)," a reference to the Real Madrid player who scored Spain's equaliser. They laugh. There is "zero" animosity between Real Madrid and Barcelona fans in the city, he tells me. Again, this is peculiar. I know Real Madrid fans in the city of Barcelona, for example, who wouldn't dream of going to a Clasico match at the Camp Nou because they couldn't bear to listen to so much Barca bleating.
Jesus tries to talk me out of going into the old part of the city at night, stressing it is too dangerous, full of pickpockets who rob at knifepoint. When we pass a few immigrant teenagers in the car, he makes a sticky-fingers gesture, rubbing his fingers against the base of his thumb. "They are not Spanish," he says. "They come here from Morocco to rob."
At Club Scorpio, a big, cavernous bar, members of the Friends of Morocco Association are scattered at two tables, eating tapas and drinking. They're a motley crew made up of Spaniards, Moroccans, a German and an Italian. A local TV station came to film them earlier in the first half of the match.
Two goals fly in during the second half—one each for Morocco and Spain. Juan Jose Florensa, or Juanjo as he's called, is dressed goofily in Lawrence of Arabia headgear. He celebrates both goals by belting on his hand drum. The match ends in a 2-2 draw with an injury-time equaliser by Spain's substitute Iago Aspas, a deft touch that was helped over the line by VAR.
Juanjo's inclusive gesture—celebrating when either team scores—typifies much of the mood in the dual-identity Spanish enclave on the night of the match. Sitting close by, Maria, however, in the great tradition of football banter, jokes that if Spain had lost she'd have headed out to the border to give the bird to any Moroccans in her sight.
After the match, Juanjo takes a few of us down to the city centre for late drinks in his four-wheel-drive jeep, which he uses to drive across the Moroccan desert with mates for fun. As the 4x4 wends its way down the corkscrew hill out of the fortified old part of the city, we pass by a statue of General Francisco Franco, the fascist dictator who ruled Spain for much of the last century.
It's a contentious piece of stone, as it's the only monument to Franco in Spain. During the second half of the match, Sylvia, one of the locals watching on, explained to me that Franco is regarded as a "legend" in Melilla, kind of like a "General Custer." Franco spent a chunk of his military career in northern Africa fighting Moroccans for the Spanish army.
The life-size statue, which is defaced with graffiti, cuts a benign figure, draped with binoculars and holding a notebook and walking stick. Franco looks more like a country gentleman than the brutal dictator many regard him to have been. One wonders what Franco would have made of a bloodless 2-2 draw between his beloved Spain—who progress to the knockout stages as group winners—and Morocco.
All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.
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