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Sunday 21st January 2018 ko 19.00

African Nations Championship Group A

MAURITANIA 0

GUINEA 1 (Sankhon 15)

Att c2,000 at Grand Stade de Marrakech, Morocco

Entry 50 MAD (approx £3.83)

No programme, food, or drinks for sale

It was around 5 in the evening and Robyn and I had been in Marrakech for around 4 hours. We were ensconced in our Riad, in the midst of the souks in the narrow alleyways of Marrakech’s traditional Medina district. It was time to explore so we headed out to Jemaa El- Fnaa, the main square of the city. We emerged from the alleyway and immediately the hawkers descended on us.

Now I’m used to being sold to, Robyn wasn’t, and the sights, colours and smells do take a little getting used to. There were snake charmers, henna tattoo artists, and no end of produce and products to try to avoid buying. The trick is to learn a quick, but firm shake of the head and a “Non, merci” and to keep walking.

There were quite a few temporary cafes, selling grilled meats of various types. Each had a different number, presumably part of some sort of licensing arrangement. The competition is fierce and a stall holder soon spotted us.

“Come here, come here, delicious meal, delicious meal, very good, we don’t give you the diarrhoea.”

It wasn’t the best sales pitch I’ve ever heard so we carried on walking and his parting shot to us was

“Come back later my friends, every little helps!” 

That half an hour in the square set the tone for our weekend.

 

If you were picking a destination purely for the football you’d never come here. In Morocco there are 2 professional leagues, the Botola Pro and Botola 2 and there are 3 tiers of the Amateur Leagues below those. The Botola fixtures are apt to be changed at very little notice, and the Amateur League seems to publish its fixtures either just before the day or, would you believe after the games take place! The Amateur fixtures are to be found on either the Morrocan FA or on Adrare.net .

Our original plan was to watch Marrakech’s top side Kawkab Marrakech in the Botola Pro on the Friday evening at the Grand Stade de Marrakech 10km out-of-town. The African Nations Cup saw that fixture postponed due to the game we ended up seeing being scheduled for the Sunday. I looked at the Championship and pondered our options.

The African Nations Championships shouldn’t be confused with its better known cousin the African Cup of Nations. The principle difference is that the Nations Cup only allows players who are playing in their country of origin’s own domestic leagues. The impression I got is that it acts as a convenient shop window for players to find lucrative contracts at clubs out of Africa.

It seemed obvious to attend the one game in the competition that was taking place locally during our time in the area. I opted to buy our tickets online even though the procedure was to collect the tickets from where they were on sale, at Stade El-Harti in Marrakech’s Hivernage District. The Morrocan Dirham is a closed currency, there’s virtually no scope to obtain it from abroad, you change your currency at the airport, and there are strict regulations as to what you can take out of Morocco. It made sense to not use our dirhams when we didn’t need to.

Having to pick up our tickets from the El-Harti was handy. The stadium used to be Kawkab’s home until the Grand Stade opened in 2011. Since then an artificial pitch has been installed so that the likes of Olympique Marrakech, Mouloudia Marrakech, Ittifaq Marrakech and no end of youth team games could be played there. Finally Adrare suggested Mouloudia would be at home at 10am on Saturday at the “Sports Stadium” so we took a “Petit taxi” out there. Hopefully we’d be able to kill two birds with one stone.

In Morocco there are two types of taxi. Within the city limits the “Petit” or small taxi, usually a locally made Dacia Logan, holds sway. The “Grand” or large taxis, almost exclusively old Mercedes-Benz W123’s are used for longer journeys or for when there’s more than 3 passengers. In the case of the Grand Taxi the fare is negotiated with the driver before starting your journey, while the petit taxis are meant to be metered.

The reality is you can practice “Mettez le compture” as much as you like but invariably the meters are “Broken” and you will have to negotiate hard before setting foot in the car to get a fare that’s merely double what the locals pay. The trick is to ask the fare, then pick a price that’s roughly a third of what you were quoted, and keep haggling until the cab offers you his “Best,” or “Asda” price. Be prepared to walk away and pick a rival taxi! It’s quite usual for a driver (or a stallholder for that matter) to chase after you to finally agree a deal!

We found booking taxis from the hotel invariably meant a good service but  you do end up paying way over the odds as the hotels employ a middle-man who takes his cut inflating an inflated price further. In Marrakech the main taxi rank is found at the south-western corner of Jemaa El-Fna close to the Koutoubia Mosque. I was told the taxis in Marrakech act as a mafia, and I saw plenty to reinforce that view. The buses are few and far between so the market the taxis serve is huge.

So we arrived at the Stade El-Harti and soon discovered that no football at all was being played there due to “works”. Quite where the games scheduled took place, or if they were played at all will remain a mystery! I’d heard that Kawbab are looking to move back here as the Grand Stade is just too far out-of-town and the tickets just too expensive. Maybe the renovation is to facilitate their return?

Actually getting collecting our tickets took a little organising. There was a banner proclaiming the championships above the ticket booths, but it took a trip to the Ministry for sport next door to find someone to rouse the vendor to serve us. You could see why though. Both Mauritania and Guinea were mathematically out of the tournament having lost their two opening games in Group A.

So, this was a dead rubber game, which if you were a local was an expensive night out at a game of no consequence, at a location a long way out-of-town. Little wonder they were surprised to see me! Eventually a window was opened for us, our vouchers carefully examined, and our tickets finally printed out. It was a shame that we didn’t get to see a game at El-Harti and if you’d like to see more of this historic stadium, have a read of Peter Miles’ visit.

 

You can take the 38 bus from the middle of town to the Grand Stade, it costs a measly 5 dirhams. However a well-known Polish hopper and his girlfriend attended this game using this bus and were harrassed en-route. We paid over the odds – 400 dirhams for our return journey by petit taxi; I suspect that a local would have paid half that. Now if I’d have been on my own maybe I’d have opted for the bus, but with a woman with me? I’ve no regrets on paying £30 for 20km round trip. Not every purchase is driven entirely by cost.

The Grand Stade de Marrakech opened in 2011 after taking a staggering 7 years to build. It was designed by Italian firm Gregotti Associates and is meant to evoke Marrakech’s architecture with its ochre colour,  thick walls, towers, and minarets. The stadium holds 45,240 and has been used for 2 World Club Championship finals. The design has attracted no little controversy, mainly due to the shape being square, despite there being an athletics track. If you can avoid being behind the goal in the top tier, you’ll be a long way from the action! The design also includes maze-like concourses, toilets with no signage as to which gender they’re for and no place for food or drink sales.

 

We arrived to a numerous if rather ineffective security presence, and an attendance clearly boosted by handing out free tickets to local schoolboys, but not it has to be said, schoolgirls. Neither our tickets nor our bags were checked and when we asked where our seats were, we were told “Just follow everyone else!” We ended up in the main stand’s lower tier, and it became slowly obvious that we were at both sat between the two teams’ ultras and that we didn’t half stand out!

Now I’ve based more or less the entirety of my travels abroad on looking out of place and playing along with the fun of being an Englishman abroad and people asking what on earth I’m doing there. The blazer, camera and clipboard tends get me into little adventures, but soon enough a policeman had seen something he didn’t like, or he’d grown bored of supervising the Mauritanian fans’ flag display.

He approached Robyn first. “Have you been taking pictures of me? Let me see your camera!” he demanded. Robyn showed him that in fact she hadn’t so he turned his attention to me. ” You shouldn’t be here, you’re a journalist! ” he opined. Now explaining that you collect visits to weird football grounds doesn’t I’ve found tend to be believed amongst the brethren of the law enforcement community so I explained that I am a football tourist. It didn’t work, so we shepherded to the stadium manager who asked once again whether I was a journalist, then since he didn’t believe me either, whether I had accreditation?

Obviously neither of us did, so he did what his turnstile operators had failed in doing and actually checked our tickets! It all rather gave him a dilemna, he clearly didn’t want to return us to the seats we’d paid for, so he took the easy option and put us in the press area. Fine by us even if the area seemed to consist more of children used as player escorts and volunteer car park stewards. But then the dirham dropped.

If I was to be a journalist then I’d need a team sheet. There were no end of them draped over the seats in the mostly empty directors’ box. So I made sure my clipboard was to the fore and asked nicely for one. I was turned down as “It is illegal, they’re only for V.I.P.’s” despite me gently pointing out that for a journalist (either real or supposed) a teamsheet was rather essential. Eventually a volunteer negotiated with the powers that wanted to be and I was surreptitiously handed the information.

The match itself was the one part of the evening that came with no surprises. The two teams were poor, and were deservedly heading home. The tie was settled by the one class player on show Guinea captain Ibrahim Sankhon sweeping home from 8 yards. Mauritania tried hard, but they created little and what the did was stymied by profligate finishing. It was entertaining without ever being a game to stir the senses.

We’d arranged to meet Said, our taxi driver at the south-eastern corner of the ground at 9pm. We didn’t linger at the final whistle, and there wasn’t any queue to get out! We reached the corner in plenty of time, but where was Said? I ended up getting a military policeman to call him, and it turned out the authorities weren’t letting his petit taxi into the stadium’s surround. Eventuallly the little ochre Dacia bounced its way across the now deserted car park.

He claimed he’d had to bribe the attendant 50 dirhams (I didn’t pay) and the journey back was a long story of how difficult it is to feed a wife and 3 children on a taxi driver’s wages in today’s Marrakech. It speaks volumes for how jaundiced I’d become over his profession’s antics that I didn’t consider paying extra!

We strolled back across Jemaa El-Fnaa, it’s odd how the hawkers don’t pounce on you when they sense you’re not buying, before finding a cafe for an almost inevitable Lamb Tagine. As any traveller should, we reflected on what we’d seen over our weekend. Marrakech is exciting, beautiful, chaotic but above all else vibrant. If you want a quiet life it’s not for you, but the flying home the next day it was clear that we’d both learned massively from the experience. What a city!

 

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