When Spain Almost Lost Control of Morocco… Yet Again


When Spain Almost Lost Control of Morocco… Yet Again

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Last night, during an insane 17 minutes of football that decided the fate of four countries in this World Cup, Spain shockingly found themselves down 2-1 to Morocco. Their defence, and the last-minute sacking of their coach, seems to have failed them on a night where they should’ve technically had a sure win. Spain was playing a North African country that they controlled large parts of until 1956, and is a former World Cup-winning nation.

In real life, Spain’s defences are way up on their border with Morocco. In the last year or so, there has been a surge of mostly sub-Saharan migrants trying to cross the 16- kilometre gap between them and the First World across the Strait of Gibraltar. Many migrants stormed the fences, a few were killed, several became victims of human trafficking once they reached the border. The Spanish border remains one of the most militarised in Europe.

In their World Cup fixture, Morocco took an early lead, in the 14th minute, after Khalid Boutaib capitalised on a mix-up between two Spanish defenders and ran half way across the pitch to finish an easy goal. This would be the first of Morocco’s rebellions in a roller-coaster of a football match.

The first actual Moroccan rebellion against its European colonisers, was post World War I, when the breakaway Republic of Rif was declared by a guerilla leader against Spanish occupation. Led by Abd el-Krim, the guerilla battalion won several skirmishes against the Spanish and French armies, seizing a number of European weapons that they would later use against the colonisers. But in the last battle of the Rif Wars in 1926, Abd el-Krim surrendered to the superior forces and the Spanish were able to reclaim control.

Five minutes after Morocco’s goal last night, Andrés Iniesta would provide an assist for Isco that would put the Spanish back on level terms. This success was unfortunately not to last for too long, as the Moroccan  fans refused to stay silent, urging their teams to score more. Back when the Rif Wars ended in the 1920s, Moroccan nationalism had been on the uptick, as the frustration levels against the French and Spanish occupation rose. By 1944, it had reached its peak, with the formation of the pro-independence Istiqlal Party.

In the match too, Morocco’s frustration rose in the minutes after half time – Noureddine Amrabat’s thunderbolt strike hit the woodwork. Morocco’s eventual moment of glory came in the 81st minute, when substitute, Youssef En-Nesyri converted a corner kick into a goal that made its travelling fans weep with joy. For the next nine minutes, it seemed as though Morocco had finally gained the upper hand over its former coloniser.

In 1956, following years of rioting, and a few critical political mistakes from France – including the exile of Sultan Mohammed V, whom the Moroccans saw as a religious leader – the country finally attained independence. The French pulled out of Morocco, swiftly followed by the Spanish, which also handed over the independent state of Tangiers, back to the Moroccans.

While, on paper the Europeans left Morocco, Spain did retain control over two parts of Morocco, which is considered Spanish land to this day. The islands of Ceuta and Melilla, which was taken by Spain in 1580 and 1497, respectively, were never returned. This has, of course, been a bone of contention between the two countries ever since. The enclave at Melilla has since become one of the most fortified borders in Europe, and is often in the news for being one of the most popular migrant crossing points between Africa and Europe.

Meanwhile, as this World Cup has shown, being a goal down in the 90th minute is about as much of a damper as a papercut is at a Dettol factory. During stoppage time, Iago Aspas, was able to sneak in a goal that was first called offside, but later reviewed and allowed. Spain had somehow pulled off a draw, and finished at the top of Group B (some thanks goes to an Iranian penalty that tied them with Portugal in the other fixture). Morocco ended up finishing at the bottom.

Some things, it appears, never change.