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Football Unites?

By Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (May 18th 2024)

Statue of Kwame Nkrumah vandalised during the coup.

The Dispute Ignites Again

Renaissance Sportive de Berkane, usually known as RS Berkane and Union Sportive de la Médine Alger, usually known as USM Alger or USMA became the latest football pawns in the long-running dispute between the neighbours and former friends, Morocco and Algeria.

Last year the African Nations Championship (CHAN) was disrupted by it as Morocco’s airline, Royal Air Maroc (RAM) was denied permission to fly directly to Constantine. The spat resulted in Morocco refusing to defend its CHAN title.

Later that year under pressure from CAF a compromise was reached allowing Morocco’s Under-17 team to participate in Algeria’s Under-17 Africa Cup of Nations. The iconic image of the younger players freely mixing with each other for a photo promised a brighter future, but the hope proved short-lived – sadly.

The Underlying Dispute

Morocco annexed the former Spanish colony in 1975, which led to the Polisario Front establishing a government in exile (in Algeria) and declaring the former Western Sahara, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 1976.

Morocco refuses to refer to the disputed territory as the SADR – it calls it ‘Moroccan Sahara’, ‘the Saharan Provinces’, or the ‘Southern Provinces’ and points out that in 1958 Moroccan independence fighters almost drove the Spanish out. Veterans of this struggle were the parents of Polisario Front activists – a fact acknowledged by former Polisario Front leaders.

Moroccan Hero

Mohamed Abdelaziz was the first President of SADR from August 1982 until he died in May 2016. Former Polisario Front activists and Moroccans point out that Abdelaziz’ father Khalili ben Mohamed El Bechir Rguibi, who outlived his son, dying in his 90s, was a member of Morocco’s Army of Liberation.

He served in the Southern Liberation Army, which almost drove Spain out of the now disputed territory in 1958, serving in the Royal Moroccan Army from 1956-1980. He remained loyal to Morocco and its kings, becoming estranged from his son – he last saw Abdelaziz in 1972.

Rguibi remained a fervent supporter of Moroccan unity. The Polisario Front is recognised by the United Nations but only 46 members recognise the SADR. A referendum that the UN has been advocating since 1988 has been persistently delayed, which resulted in the Polisario Front ending its ceasefire which had begun in 1991. They resumed the armed struggle in 2020 in frustration at the lack of progress.


The issue has disrupted Morocco and Algeria’s relations for many years. Algeria quickly recognised the SADR and hosts the Polisario Front. It took over a decade to restore diplomatic relations, which remain strained. The dispute between the Nort-African neighbours spilled over into football – not for the first time – in this year’s Confederation Cup when Algerian authorities seized RS Berkane’s jerseys, which included a small map of Morocco that included the disputed territory. Berkane, which had CAF’s approval for the jerseys had played in other Confederation Cup matches with this kit.

USM Alger had little say in the matter as the decision to seize Berkane’s kit and equipment was made by Algeria authorities, not the club. CAF’s decision to sanction the Algerians, supported by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) has outraged Algerian football, but Berkane advanced to the final without having to kick a ball.

Football Unites?

Sadly lost in the furore is the time football united the now feuding neighbours, Algeria and Morocco. In 1958 the FLN Team used football to highlight the cause of Algeria’s independence. They travelled far and wide garnering support for Algeria’s liberation struggle. Among the countries and football teams to show support was Morocco. They were the only country banned by FIFA for a year for supporting Algerian independence by playing against the FLN Team. That demonstration of solidarity should never be forgotten – ever!

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