South Africa vs Morocco, an Afcon clash with far-reaching consequences

The South African and Moroccan governments will closely follow their teams’ duel in the Africa Cup of Nations because of the political rivalry that has infiltrated the sporting arena.

Hlompho Kekana and Danny Jordaan both smiled before talking about the rivalry between South Africa and Morocco that started in the political arena and has spread to the economic and sporting fronts. But their smiles are different, even though both have been hurt by Moroccan institutions.

Kekana’s smile is warm and bright. The Mamelodi Sundowns’ captain even flashes his white teeth when he talks about the Brazilians’ rivalry with the 20-time Moroccan champions. He is full of admiration for Wydad Casablanca, a club that denied Kekana and Sundowns the chance to retain the CAF Champions League they won in 2016 by knocking them out in the quarterfinals of the 2017 Champions League. Wydad went on to win the continent’s premier club competition, and a rivalry between the Tshwane giants and Wydad was born as coach Pitso Mosimane lamented his side’s elimination on penalties. 

Wydad have continuously inflicted pain on Sundowns when it matters, stopping them in the semifinals of the 2018-2019 Champions League and finishing ahead of them in the 2018 campaign where the Brazilians crashed out in the group stage. The Brazilians have had small victories, like stunning the Casablanca giant 2-1 in Atteridgeville in January this year. 

Sundowns gave Wydad a taste of their own medicine, refusing to be bullied by the Moroccan side while also throwing in the same gamesmanship north African teams are famous for in continental football. The ball boys took their time in returning the ball when Sundowns were in front and their players constantly got “injured” to kill the momentum. 

Wydad didn’t take it well. A confrontation ensued between Mosimane and a member of Wydad’s technical team while Jingles was doing a post-match interview. The bull inside Mosimane showed its horns and he strongly reprimanded the official who menacingly stood in front of the Sundowns’ coach while the cameras were rolling.  

Wydad fans replied by unfurling a banner dedicated to the Sundowns’ coach in the return leg to show their displeasure at Mosimane’s utterance that Wydad couldn’t stomach what they normally dish out. “Pitso Mosimane, great country when teaching you…becoming corrupt when beating you (sic)”. This was in reference to Mosimane doing his CAF Pro Licence in Morocco. The coach took it as a sign of respect, because it takes something special to rattle north African teams to the point that they write you a “love letter”. 

Why there is political rivalry 

But if the Moroccan government were to write a banner dedicated to their South African counterparts, it would be a lot stronger than what Wydad supporters wrote. The political stand-off between these African powerhouses is a tense affair, leading to a strained relationship that will take some doing to mend. 

At the heart of the stand-off is South Africa’s commitment to recognise the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic and call for other African nations to support the Sahrawi in their fight for self-rule in Western Sahara – a disputed territory in the northwestern part of the continent. Morocco considers it their province with certain autonomous rights, while the Polisaro Front wants to end Moroccan rule of the territory by pushing to gain independence. 

This has strained business and political relations between South Africa and Morocco. Sport hasn’t been spared. Caster Semenya was the latest victim. The two-time Olympic champion was frustrated by Moroccan authorities who denied her entry in the IAAF Diamond League meet in Rabat on 16 June. 

Switzerland’s high court had cleared Semenya to run without taking any drugs to lower her testosterone levels while her battle with the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) on the matter continued. Even though she was eligible to run, it was still up to the hosting body to invite Semenya to participate. Morocco didn’t. They issued the invitation only when it was impossible for her to fly to Rabat from South Africa, either via France or Dubai, to compete. Semenya was in Paris when she found out that an invitation hadn’t been extended to her, forcing her to return home instead of continuing her dominance in the 800m. 

‘We can’t support Morocco’

This was part of Morocco’s retaliation for South Africa’s decision not to vote for the north African country’s bid for the 2026 Fifa World Cup, which was won by the joint submission from the United States, Mexico and Canada. The Confederation of African Football (CAF) had instructed African federations to vote for Morocco, the continent’s only bid for the global showpiece. Government instructed the South African Football Association (Safa) to do no such thing. 

“We are very clear that we can’t support Morocco‚” the former minister of sport and recreation, Tokozile Xasa, said. The ministry, under Nathi Mthethwa, is now called sports, arts and culture. “Our parliament was very straightforward in this regard‚ it is the mandate of the country and it is an obligation for sporting bodies to understand what the country’s agenda is.”

Jordaan, who cast the vote for the US bid, suffered the consequences of going against Morocco. What should have been a routine win for him in the election for the vacant seat at the Fifa council for Anglophone Africa was complicated by Morocco. Jordaan had been put forward as the preferred candidate by southern Africa, but Malawian Walter Nyamilandu came from nowhere not only to challenge Jordaan but also to win election. Nyamilandu got 35 votes while the Safa president received 18. There were accusations of bribery fuelling Nyamilandu’s surprise victory.  

“We were punished,” Jordaan said at the Marriott Hotel in Cairo with a smile that unsuccessfully tried to hide his hurt. “That’s why I am not on the Fifa council. Your belief is non-negotiable [though]. I come from a liberation background. I come from the struggle of the ‘70s where there were people like Steve Biko, Raymond Mhlaba and Govan Mbeki. Those people never asked for money or kickbacks. We must take the pain and not complain. We understand any nation’s quest for freedom, liberation and sovereign independence. We understand that. South Africa has stated its position clearly.”

With South Africa’s insistence on its position, and Morocco’s fightback, this tit-for-tat approach will continue for a long time.  

“We are working hard to normalise that relationship and now we are drawn in the same group [in the Africa Cup of Nations],” Jordaan said. “But that is the position of the government, there is nothing we can do. It is a political and diplomatic stance. We hope that we can find a solution to the impasse, but it is a big historical problem. I spoke to the minister about that and the impact it has on sport. He is well-versed on the matter.”

No favours from the Atlas Lions 

Bafana Bafana’s clash with the Atlas Lions will be closely watched in Pretoria and Rabat, not just because it will decide where these two teams finish in Group D. A win on Monday 1 July, at Al Salam Stadium, will be celebrated as another victory by these two warring governments.

“It’s going to be a very good thing for me to come up against Morocco because we will have to put on an emotional performance with the history some of us have against Moroccans,” Kekana said with a smile on his face. 

The Moroccan government have remained resolute in their stance.  

“Geographically we are very far from each other, we are two extremes in Africa, so we don’t have any bilateral issue,” Morocco’s foreign minister, Nasser Bourita, told the Sunday Times. “We don’t have common borders, we don’t have territorial issues. The problem is linked to one thing: SA decided to have a position on an issue which is hundreds of kilometres far from it, a position which is in contradiction with the UN and now in contradiction with the AU positions.”

He further stated that as “two important countries economically in Africa” South Africa and Morocco have a responsibility “to push the African countries into the necessary emergence of the economy.” 

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Bourita will be one of the government officials who will be cheering for their team louder than usual on Monday night. Even though the Atlas Lions have already qualified for the knockout stage, Bafana need a result against them to reach the last 16, so Morocco coach Herve Renard will not take it easy on South Africa despite having a soft spot for them. 

“We need to stay focused on getting the first position in the group,” Renard said. “This was the target for us… We watched South Africa’s games. They had a good game against Ivory Coast, but they made one mistake by losing the ball in the middle. Max Gradel received the ball, played a cross and it was a goal. You can’t make these sort of mistakes [at this level]. It’s very important to finish first.”

Moroccans are used to having the last laugh in their clashes with South Africa whether it’s through their talent on the pitch or political muscle off it. A loss for Stuart Baxter will have devastating consequences, and not just because of this political rivalry. Bafana have played an uninspiring brand of football that Mthethwa described as “poor” while Jordaan said what he saw in the loss to the Elephants left him “unimpressed”. This match is Baxter’s fight for survival as it will be hard for him to retain his job if Bafana don’t meet their minimum target of reaching the last 16. 

“I am sure that they want nine points. I am sure that they will want to put us to bed. We are not expecting any favours from anybody,” Baxter said. “If we get anything out of this game, we would have to deserve it.”   

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