Morocco’s Ultras, the State and the Soccer War

15 November, 2022

 

Aomar Boum

 

On Novem­ber 20, the FIFA World Cup will offi­cial­ly start at al-Bayt Sta­di­um in Al Khor, Qatar. 32 nations, includ­ing Moroc­co, will com­pete at the inter­na­tion­al event. In addi­tion to the Moroc­can nation­al team and its fans, Moroc­co will be rep­re­sent­ed by a team of cyber­se­cu­ri­ty agents who will assist the Qatari gov­ern­ment to ensure the safe­ty and secu­ri­ty of the par­tic­i­pants and spec­ta­tors. This Qatari reliance on Moroc­can sta­di­um secu­ri­ty exper­tise is part­ly relat­ed to its decades-long expe­ri­ence in the man­age­ment of sports events and vigilance.

As ear­ly as 2005, Moroc­co saw the birth of some of the first orga­nized asso­ci­a­tions of young, loy­al and over-enthu­si­as­tic sup­port­ers of soc­cer clubs, dubbed as the ultras. They were first estab­lished in Casablan­ca by fans of the his­tor­i­cal soc­cer Raja club and then expand­ed to oth­er teams nation­wide. While the phe­nom­e­non of ultras emerged in Europe and in par­tic­u­lar Italy, they have devel­oped local and region­al iden­ti­ties in Moroc­co with a finan­cial auton­o­my and inde­pen­dence from their own clubs.

 

 

While Moroc­can ultras do not iden­ti­fy as polit­i­cal asso­ci­a­tions, their con­fronta­tion with secu­ri­ty forces and crit­i­cism of gov­ern­men­tal poli­cies made them vis­i­ble in local and inter­na­tion­al con­texts espe­cial­ly as their songs on cor­rup­tion, alien­ation, pover­ty and the Pales­tin­ian-Israeli con­flict gained pop­u­lar­i­ty across the vir­tu­al web. The fol­low­ing song by the Helala Boys — the offi­cial ultras of the soc­cer club of the town Ken­i­tra, a port town north of Rabat — pro­vides a clear sum­ma­ry of this social frus­tra­tion. It reads:

This a song for all ultras around the world
All the peo­ple who have been robbed of freedom
This mes­sage is for the police and the government
From its injus­tice, we are already fed up
Only Our Lord is our witness!
In every week there are big par­ties in the Curva
Tifos, pyrotech­nics, and banners
Mes­sages that tell the truth
Our ideas here have no limit
Every day, they call us criminals

The media, soci­ety and the government
We hate you all, we are ready for war
Now study the sto­ry and learn what lies between the lines
From the hand­cuffed in the sta­di­um to the imprisoned 
They cre­ate fake news and accuse us of violence
In tears my moth­er did not sleep yesterday
I am sor­ry mom but your son is oppressed
In my coun­try I am liv­ing like hell
In this coun­try, the ultras spir­it they nev­er understood
The more they try to stop us the stronger we become
They made the 09/09 law (law against the ultras)
So dis­gust­ing you call that a law
Fuck­ing law, they will nev­er con­trol us
We know our right and will nev­er be silent
On cor­rup­tion and author­i­tar­i­an­ism, we will always speak
We will do every­thing to ensure freedom
This song will stay in your head
Nev­er try to stop or be against my passion
Because my anger is the weapon against repression
Inde­pen­dence and free­dom for ultras
We love the Green and White unconditionally
We will be with you in life and in death
I’ve been with you for days, months, and years.
I will nev­er leave you, I say this with pride.
Since child­hood, I love you like crazy.
I sing with joy and flares in my hands
With the bal­a­cla­va and the green in my eyes
Turn on the flash and take a pic­ture of me
A crazy fan who loves freedom
Final­ly, you have to open your mind.
Our God is great, our God is great
He will pro­tect us from the oppressors
Our God is great, our God is great
Please God, pro­tect us from the oppressors
Always pro­tect us
Here we are ready for war
We don’t fear any­one and nobody can con­trol us.
We will nev­er be what they want us to be
We are not pup­pets to play at any time
With the green I can have a beau­ti­ful life
With my broth­ers, we will be in good and bad times with you.
This the life style I want to have
As an hon­or crazy and different
This is the end you will see again
Our God is great, our God is great
He will pro­tect us from the oppressors

This long man­i­festo describes a feel­ing of dis­trust in the gov­ern­ment and its bureau­cra­cy among the ultras, who devel­oped a cul­ture of opt­ing out of tra­di­tion­al social sys­tems. These state­ments under­score anger towards the state’s repres­sive and cor­rupt sys­tem. Like oth­er youth move­ments around the globe, these young ultras express a polit­i­cal dis­il­lu­sion­ment with the social and eco­nom­ic sys­tem in Moroc­co. The ultras are thought to be the out­come of a polit­i­cal void cre­at­ed by the author­i­tar­i­an state, which dis­cred­it­ed its own polit­i­cal process­es and weak­ened polit­i­cal par­ties and unions over the years, con­fronting the street direct­ly with­out any civic soci­ety to medi­ate its rela­tion­ship to the peo­ple.  As a result, and in the absence of insti­tu­tions of men­tor­ship, youth have opt­ed out from the tra­di­tion­al bureau­cra­cies of soc­cer clubs to seek refuge in the ultras because of their deep dis­trust of both gov­ern­ment and polit­i­cal par­ties. Unlike the gen­er­al per­cep­tion of ultras as crim­i­nal orga­ni­za­tions, their mem­bers see them as orga­ni­za­tions that pro­vide sup­port to chal­lenged youth.

Today, the Moroc­can Pro­fes­sion­al Soc­cer League known as Boto­lo Pro includes the fol­low­ing ultras: Ultras Los Rifi­nos (Al Hou­ceima), Orange Boys (Berkane), Fatal Tigers (Fes), Brigade Waj­da (Ouj­da), Green Ghost (Khourib­ga), Crazy Boys (Mar­rakesh), Los Mata­does (Tetouan), Ultras Her­cules (Tang­i­er), Helala Boys (Ken­i­tra), Askary (Rabat), Eagles (Casablan­ca), Imazighen (Agadir) and Win­ners (Casablan­ca). These ultras are autonomous, oper­at­ing gen­er­al­ly out­side the direct purview of the boards of the clubs they claim to represent.

Dur­ing the ear­ly years of inde­pen­dence, King Has­san II was able to trans­form soc­cer into a nation­al sport and pas­time, which Mon­cef Lyazghi, a soci­ol­o­gist and author of the French book Ultras dans la ville, describes as the “Makhzani­sa­tion” of sport, which includes the ear­ly mil­i­ta­riza­tion of its man­age­ment and iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with nation­al­ism. Foot­ball allowed Has­san II to divert the atten­tion of Moroc­can soci­ety from its inter­nal polit­i­cal con­fronta­tions dur­ing the 1960s-1980s and social and eco­nom­ic malaise.  It became part of the state ide­ol­o­gy of soft sur­veil­lance to cre­ate docile cit­i­zens with­out obvi­ous and major aware­ness of state struc­tur­al vio­lence that could trig­ger social resistance.

At the same time, soc­cer sta­di­ums became a bat­tle­ground of social and polit­i­cal resis­tance, where taboos are expressed and crit­i­cism of the gov­ern­ment and its polit­i­cal elite is rarely sanc­tioned. The hid­den social tran­scripts that are rarely men­tioned in nor­mal cir­cum­stances are eas­i­ly heard. In Decem­ber 1979, fol­low­ing the humil­i­at­ing defeat of the Moroc­can nation­al team against Alge­ria, Abdel­hafid Kadiri, the Min­is­ter of Youth and Sports, pro­posed a year’s sus­pen­sion of the nation­al com­pe­ti­tion to give the nation­al foot­ball fed­er­a­tion and club admin­is­tra­tors and com­mit­tees time to revamp their pro­grams. Has­san II dis­count­ed the pro­pos­al, giv­en the impor­tance of foot­ball as a week­ly rit­u­al for the pub­lic to vent its polit­i­cal and social frus­tra­tion that would oth­er­wise be direct­ed against the state. If foot­ball played a key role in the nation­al lib­er­a­tion move­ment as a venue of polit­i­cal mobi­liza­tion, it rep­re­sent­ed one of the few spaces avail­able for angry fans, espe­cial­ly young unem­ployed youth, to express their frus­tra­tion towards the post­colo­nial state and its failed eco­nom­ic policies.

Yet despite this lim­it­ed license to protest the state in the sta­di­um, the chair of the club and its board mem­bers main­tained strict over­sight over fans, which pro­vid­ed a strong con­nec­tion not only to the play­ers but also the admin­is­tra­tive office of the club. This iden­ti­ty would fade away over the years. The large fan­dom base of clubs was not only lim­it­ed to low­er social class­es but also to sup­port­ers from the mid­dle and upper class­es. The wors­en­ing of the eco­nom­ic con­di­tions fol­low­ing the IMF and World Bank struc­tur­al adjust­ment poli­cies dimin­ished the large rev­enue base of clubs. Fans lost their tra­di­tion­al con­nec­tions to the clubs as their lead­er­ship became inter­est­ed in finan­cial gains — espe­cial­ly sell­ing the rights of play­ers to Euro­pean clubs. The com­mer­cial­iza­tion of soc­cer clubs and the indus­try of play­ers neg­a­tive­ly impact­ed the fans’ asso­ci­a­tion with the team. A crit­i­cal fan­dom emerged. For exam­ple, the Win­ners, the ultras of the Casablan­ca Wydad club, penned the fol­low­ing anthem of the club:


In the name of the oppressed people
On behalf of depressed people
I sing today… I speak
I clash with the government
Oppres­sion goes beyond the limits
The trun­cheons beat us
The doors of free­dom closed
In our sti­fled faces
At each match… each smoke
The cam­eras aim at me
Hood­ed, with hid­den face
In case the DST (Gen­er­al Direc­torate for ter­ri­to­r­i­al Sur­veil­lance) films me
I’m just a supporter
What is my sin
Free­dom.
They want us to be slaves
That we accept the situation
We don’t accept that even in a cell.
We will nev­er give up

The lyrics of this song high­light the dis­en­fran­chised youth’s anger and frus­tra­tion about the polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic sit­u­a­tion. It denounces the admin­is­tra­tive abuse using the club ultra’s anthem as a polit­i­cal mes­sage direct­ed at the club man­age­ment and the government.

The com­mer­cial­iza­tion of local clubs affect­ed both spon­sor­ship and men­tor­ship of neigh­bor­hood teams, which turned to street cul­ture includ­ing gangs, lead­ing to instances of vio­lence out­side sta­di­ums at the end of games. Clubs lost the priv­i­lege of over­sight and turned to secu­ri­ty for help which antag­o­nized the fans and lead to a series of songs crit­i­cal of the government’s eco­nom­ic poli­cies, cul­ture of cor­rup­tion and mis­man­age­ment of nation­al resources. In this exam­ple the Ultras Her­cules of Tang­i­er Club high­light the state of despair that led Morocco’s unem­ployed to con­sid­er ille­gal migration.

This is a coun­try of humiliation
And tears were shed in
Life in it is bitter
They didn’t lie when they said
The gov­ern­ment killed us with emp­ty promises
We did not see any­thing in this country
In Mawazine [musi­cal fes­ti­val] Shakira
Was giv­en a million
Our demands are small
You burnt us with increase prices
By God it’s a big mafia
Every­one has become a crook
In the local neighborhoods
Poor peo­ple have formed queues
A can­dle gives us light
Our only water is from com­mu­nal taps
And the gov­ern­ment laugh at us
And with our mon­ey they buy villas
Take us on a boat
Res­cue us from this land.

The rise of ultras and youth cul­ture that defy social and polit­i­cal norms are gen­er­al­ly met with heavy secu­ri­ty, par­tic­u­lar­ly since the gov­ern­ment intro­duced laws crim­i­nal­iz­ing the cul­ture of ultras and fin­ing clubs for acts of vio­lence. The over­ly legal and secu­ri­ty-focused   approach to ultras cul­ture is dri­ven by pan­ic and fear of an econ­o­my of youth vio­lence. Mem­bers of ultras see this approach as reac­tionary because it fails to iden­ti­ty the social prob­lems which reside in the break­down of social norms relat­ed to sports edu­ca­tion. These social norms are learned at school and are enforced by both the club and the family.

Ultras are not just delin­quent or vio­lent youth who seek to cause chaos. They are, in fact, bear­ers of a gen­er­al­ized socio-cul­tur­al cri­sis and con­vey­ers of mes­sages from the mar­gin­al­ized sec­tions of Moroc­can soci­ety. Until the roots of the polit­i­cal, social, and cul­tur­al issues they cri­tique are addressed, these youth will con­tin­ue to ridicule Moroc­can gov­ern­ments in sta­di­ums and destroy pub­lic and pri­vate prop­er­ty out­side of sta­di­ums in moments of frustration.

 

Aomar Boum (guest editor, COMIX) is a cultural anthropologist at UCLA, where he is Maurice Amado Chair in Sephardic Studies and Professor in the Department of Anthropology. He is the author of Memories of Absence: How Muslims Remember Jews in Morocco, and the coauthor of The Holocaust and North Africa as well as A Concise History of the Middle East (2018) and most recently, with Mohamed Daadaoui, the coauthor of the Historical Dictionary of the Arab Uprisings (2020). He is currently working with Nadjib Berber on a graphic novel of European refugees in Vichy camps in North Africa during the Second World War. He was born and raised in the oasis of Mhamid, Foum Zguid in the Province of Tata, Morocco.

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