Some football fans from the North African countries have spent their life savings to follow their national teams to the World Cup
RABAT and TUNIS - "It has not happened for 20 years! The Atlas Lions at the World Cup! I could not miss that..."
So, like 42,000 other Moroccan fans, Tahar Ghannam, 21, a medical student from Rabat, took to the road, with a suitcase "prepared by [his] mother" and a year’s savings in his pocket.
His destination: Russia, where the Moroccan national team play their first match on Friday against Iran.
Tahar wants to tell his the story from start to finish. "At Casablanca airport, I was happy to see a group of 15 red and green caps. I met some supporters, including Abdelali, a young Moroccan," he began, enthusiastically.
"He was carrying two suitcases: his own and his father's, El Hadj, a 75-year-old man who, to kill time, took pleasure in telling me the story of the beautiful days of Moroccan football: the elegance of Timoumi, the dribbles of Bouderbala [two legendary Moroccan footballers].
"While waiting for my friends to join me, I chose a hostel in St Petersburg for 74 dirhams [7 euros] per night, the price of a tea in some cafes in Rabat.”
In Marrakech, Moroccans celebrate the qualification of the Atlas Lions in November 2017 (AFP)
In St Petersburg, Tahar also met three Moroccans who told him they planned to cross illegally into Finland.
"And I asked myself a question: of the 42,000 Moroccan supporters expected in Russia, how many will not return to Morocco?”
"I chose a hostel in St Petersburg at seven euros per night, the price of a tea in some cafes in Rabat"
- Tahar Ghannam, 21, medical student
Generally organised into groups, pooling the costs of travel and accommodation, Moroccans fans have built online networks and share tips and information on Facebook groups dedicated to the World Cup. The most famous of them share news from Russia with their followers.
One of the influential Moroccan tweeters, Marouane, told MEE that "the idea of going to Russia began to germinate as soon as we started to believe that the national team had a chance of qualifying for the World Cup. After 20 years of absence, Morocco’s qualification is a historic moment I wished to be a part of."
With a small group of friends, he decided to "take part in an adventure".
"The logistical aspects are managed collectively, by all of us, thanks to joint preparations [including combining savings for housing and transport]," he explained.
This is not his first trip to Russia and he wants to take this opportunity to "visit one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Outside of match times, we have planned several cultural visits and artistic performances to take advantage of the fantastic cultural heritage of the great country that Russia is.”
For this trip, Marouane has planned a large budget, "more significant than I would have planned for a simple vacation", he said. "But I must also say that I have chosen to visit a few neighbouring countries: Finland, Lithuania, Germany. So, yes, I will be in financial ruin when I return, but we do not qualify for the World Cup every day!"
Hicham Khattabi, a Moroccan architect, explained that the idea of going to Russia went through his mind "when Benatia [the Atlas Lions’ captain, who plays for Turin’s Juventus] scored the second goal against the Ivory Coast" on 11 November, 2017.
The Moroccan team celebrate a goal against the Ivory Coast in Abidjan (AFP)
The architect then decided to go and cheer on the national team in Russia.
"I have not taken a language course, since Russian is not easy to learn. But I am a fan of architecture and history, and Russia is a real treasure for those things."
For him too, such a trip is synonymous with financial sacrifices. "Spending a fortnight in Russia is not something I would have taken for granted, especially during the World Cup. But it's a dream that may not happen again in my life."
We are in the toughest group in this World Cup. Some will say that qualifying for the second round would almost be a miracle. In any case, we have no choice, all we can do is believe it can happen!
- Ashraf Grioute, Atlas Lions fan
Hicham intends to find his father and cousins during the match against Portugal. “Qualification for the round of 16 would already be a real success, especially as Morocco is part of a tough group [which includes Portugal and Spain].”
Ashraf Grioute said he was a "big fan of football" and as such, there was no question that he would be there to support his team once it was clear Morocco was qualifying.
"Morocco’s qualification for the World Cup finals is a major event that I cannot miss," he told MEE, describing how he had planned his trip with friends.
"It must be said that choosing to go to Russia counts for something. The World Cup is precisely the opportunity to discover a country unlike any other," he said, though he admitted that he was travelling with little expectation that the national team would do well.
"On paper it looks particularly difficult. We are in the toughest group of this World Cup, with the former world champions, the European champions and the Asian champions. Some will say that qualifying for the second round would almost be a miracle. But I'm not defeatist, I prefer to believe in our chances, as slim as they are," he said.
"In any case, we have no choice, all we can do is believe it can happen!"
Fifth World Cup for Tunisia
After missing out on World Cups in 2010 and 2014, Tunisia will participate in the tournament for the fifth time in the country's history, playing in group G with England, Belgium and Panama.
On Thursday, 7 June, the Tunisian team flew to Krasnodar in Russia to play their last friendly against Spain (which ended in a 1- 0 defeat).
The Tunisian team arrive in Moscow on 11 June (AFP)
"It's a dream come true," said Rafik Dridi who, last December, was among the first in line at the Tunisian football federation to reserve his tickets.
"When I was small, I dreamed of attending the matches of the national team in the World Cup."
Now 23, he is leaving for Russia on Saturday with his brother to attend Tunisia's first two games, against England and Belgium. "It’s my first trip! I cannot believe yet that I will be attending the World Cup.
In total, between the airline, ticket, stadium tickets, and accommodation, the trip comes to about 4,000 dinars (1,300 euros). Something like this is not a given for a young public servant
- Rafik Dridi, Tunisian team supporter
“In total, between the airline, ticket, stadium tickets, and accommodation, the trip comes to about 4,000 dinars (1,300 euros). Something like this is not a given for a young public servant. It was my older brother who helped me out. I will repay it later, like a bank loan but without interest!” he added jokingly.
Zied Trabelsi, a 28-year-old chemotherapy technician at a hospital, has been saving money since January, as soon as his match ticket against Belgium was confirmed by FIFA. The trip has cost him about 3,000 dinars (1,000 euros).
"It's mainly the trip and the atmosphere in the stadium that counts for me. The World Cup is something to experience at least once in a lifetime. It's something unique, even if the national team does not win, it's the experience that matters to me the most. These are the intense sensations to experience," says Zied.
'The chechia, the derbouka and the national flag'
In Tunis, a little more than 3,000 kilometres from Moscow as the crow flies, where the players of the Tunisian national team will be lodged, their supporters are preparing, each in their own way, to follow the matches.
Ibrahim, 60 and retired, has chosen to watch the games from his home, taking care in advance to make sure he has all of the television channels he needs.
"There are many African and German channels that will broadcast the World Cup games. It does not matter if I do not understand the language, all that interests me is that I do not miss a match, and without paying all of the additional fees."
There are many African and German channels that will broadcast the World Cup games. It does not matter if I do not understand the language, all that interests me is that I do not miss a match
- Ibrahim, 60, remained in Tunis
The beIN group has obtained exclusive broadcasting rights for the countries in North Africa and the Middle East. beIN MENA will be the exclusive broadcaster of the 2018 Russia World Cup on its beIN SPORTS channels in 24 countries. To take advantage of this offer, you have to get a subscription that many consider too expensive.
"I will not get a subscription for specialty channels, it costs about 600 dinars [about 200 euros] and 1,200 dinars with the receiver [400 euros]. It's too expensive. I have financial commitments and a family to feed,” said Chekib, 36, a manager in a company.
“It's with friends, in a cafe, that I'm going to watch the national team games."
For Chedi, a week in Russia will deprive him of the summer holidays and the beach in Tunisia. "This is the price to pay for attending the World Cup," he said.
The 29-year-old computer scientist, who lives and works in France, is in Tunisia to equip himself before leaving for Moscow.
"I took advantage of the holidays for Eid al-Fitr to return to Tunisia and buy the jersey of the national team. I also need the chechia [traditional headdress], the derbouka [a drum] and the national flag!"
Five World Cups and 20 African cups
Chedi's preparations began in December, when he applied to FIFA for the Tunisia-Belgium match, and spent months waiting impatiently for his ticket to arrive in April.
Chedi will watch the rest of the matches in France. "More precisely in a known cafe, which brings together all Tunisians in Belleville, for a 100 percent Tunisian atmosphere!"
He will also rely on his mother to prepare traditional Tunisian dishes including "bnedeks [meatballs] and bssissa [a flour-based dessert].
In Tunis, MEE met the biggest supporter of the national team, the famous Ridha Jelassi, aka "Ridha el fil" [Ridha the elephant].
الاتحاد الدولي للتسويق والاستثمار الرياضي
والاتحاد الدولي لمشجعي كرة القدم
يرشح ويصنف المشجع التونسي الشهير رضا الفيل الاول عالميآ كمشجع مميز من طريقة المظهر والظهور في الملاعب الرياضية بالاشكال والالوان ورسمت الفيل والملقب برضا الفيل
درع التميز العالمي للمشجعين pic.twitter.com/iluOnfJKYc
— الاتحاد الدولي IFMIS (@IFMIS2018) March 2, 2018
Translation: "The International Federation of Sports Marketing and Investment and the International Federation of Football Fans designates the famous Tunisian supporter Ridha el fil as the number one global supporter.
"Ridha el fil" is a strong supporter of the national team: he has been to the World Cup five times and to the African Cup of Nations on all 20 occasions when the national team has qualified.
"El fil" is known for the show he gives in the stands to encourage his country’s fans, with the upper part of his body painted in the colours of the national team.
Coming from a modest background, Ridha el fil was able to afford this trip thanks to a sponsor. According to him, even the former international football player Zied Tlemcani contributed to the financing of his trip.
We’re going to celebrate there, all eyes will be on us. We intend to make our country known in Russia
- Ridha Jelassi, aka 'Ridha el fil'
"We're going to celebrate there. All eyes will be on us. We intend to make our country known in Russia. We will raise the colours of Tunisia. We will not go unnoticed," he said excitedly.
"It is also to promote Tunisia as a destination, so that tourists will come to discover our country."
Ridha el fil departs on Saturday for Russia aboard a plane carrying supporters of the national team. He will be accompanied by a friend who studied fine art and whose task is to produce drawings and patterns on his body.
"I guarantee you that there will be plenty of surprises this year," he confided to MEE. "Moreover, the festivities will start from the beginning, at Tunis-Carthage airport."
In Tunisia, cafes that want to see their turnover increase during the World Cup must get the beIN sport subscription to broadcast matches, and face the competition.
Khaled, a cafe manager in Aouina, a suburban residential neighbourhood where cafes run along the main street, has meanwhile multiplied the number of TV screens in his cafe. He even plans to install a giant screen to satisfy his customers.
The association Aich Tounsi (Live Tunisian) is also engaged in an initiative, Mademek Tounsi, which will allow Tunisians to gather around games in different regions of the country, including at the amphitheatre of El Jem.
Balkiss Naskai, press officer of the association, told MEE that this initiative is free and open to all.
"It will allow Tunisians, regardless of their social background, to take advantage of this event and gather around football matches. Because since the revolution, in the face of political conflicts and the rising cost of living, Tunisians have lost their joie de vivre."
- This article was originally published on Middle East Eye's French website.