How Morocco uses football to strengthen ties with African countries

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Fouzi Lekjaa, the president of the Royal Moroccan Football Federation (FRMF), in Rabat, in June 2018.

Big loser of the race for the 2026 World Cup, Morocco is back in the game of sports diplomacy. Removed in 2018 from the organization of the Football World Cup, the kingdom has recently increased initiatives and partnerships on the continent.

Taking advantage of the intransigence of the African Football Confederation (CAF), which judged the stadiums of Bamako, Djibouti, Niamey and Ouagadougou to be non-compliant for the qualifying matches for the 2022 World Cup, Morocco has positioned itself as a land decline in African football by hosting several matches this fall. Thus, in October, Djiboutians and Burkinabés will face each other in Marrakech, Mozambique and Cameroon will play in Tangier, while the Guinea-Sudan and Mali-Kenya matches will take place in Agadir. Even the Moroccan selection has planned to play its away matches… at home.

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“All these federations have signed a partnership with Morocco. As their stadiums have not been approved – except for Guinea, which was excluded due to a special situation [liée au coup d’Etat de septembre] -, they naturally turned to Morocco in order to ask to be able to play there. What we obviously accepted ”, indicates Omar Khyari, close advisor to Fouzi Lekjaa, the president of the Royal Moroccan Football Federation (FRMF).

The latter sits on the Executive Committee of CAF and the FIFA Council. Considered as one of the main contractors of sports diplomacy engaged by Morocco, “Fouzi Lekjaa is also the director of the state budget and he has the king’s confidence to carry out this project”, underlines Moncef El Yazghi, researcher in sports policy. More than sports diplomacy, I think we should talk about football diplomacy, because all efforts are focused on this discipline ”, adds the author of Sports policies of Morocco, 1912-2021.

Stadium construction

The place given to sporting events in Morocco’s strategy of influence towards sub-Saharan Africa is not new. The country, which returned to the African Union (AU) in January 2017 after a thirty-two year absence, has stepped up investments and official visits from the king, Mohammed VI, to strengthen economic and political ties with his African peers. “Sport can help develop certain relations with English-speaking countries, for example, traditionally closer to South Africa”, observes Moncef El Yazghi.

An unwavering ally of Algiers, South Africa is historically one of the main supporters of the Polisario Front in the conflict in Western Sahara. It was precisely the support given to the independence movement by certain African countries that led Morocco to slam the door of what was still the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1984 – an empty chair policy that did not has not changed the positions of the Pan-African organization, of which the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) has been a member since 1982.

Rabat therefore now favors other ways to get closer to South Africa and the countries of East Africa. In 2015, the kingdom notably signed sports partnerships with Tanzania and Rwanda and pledged to finance the construction of several stadiums.

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Morocco had seen even bigger in 2018. Four times unsuccessful candidate for the organization of the World Cup (in 1994, 1998, 2006 and 2010), it hoped to be the second country on the continent, after South Africa in 2010, to welcome it in 2026. To gain votes and position itself as an influential player, the Moroccan side did not skimp on resources and between 2015 and 2018 had sealed a dozen partnerships with African federations.

On its territory, Morocco has also undertaken the construction and renovation of important infrastructures: modular stadiums, high-speed line, roads, airport terminals, stations … But the image of a developed and politically stable country does not was not enough to win the organization against the joint candidacy of the United States, Canada and Mexico, supported by former US President Donald Trump.

“A key player”

Providing assistance to teams temporarily deprived of a stadium now allows the kingdom to strengthen ties that had been weakened a little lately, Covid-19 requires. “When teams come to spend several days in Morocco, we make sure to promote their stay, for example by making it easier to obtain visas., continues Omar Khyari. We prefer that the grounds are occupied and that the money paid by such or such federation is injected into the economy of Moroccan football. “

The FRMF has forged partnerships with 44 African federations, mainly sub-Saharan. “These are renewable two-year contracts, explains Omar Khyari. And partnerships are adjusted according to local realities. “ Concretely, Morocco undertakes to support the construction of sports infrastructures, the training of executives, the hosting of internships for national selections, the training of referees and the organization of friendly matches.

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“Morocco wants to be the leader of African football and it is not far from it. It has become a key player ”, remarks a leader of a West African federation, on condition of anonymity: “Its diplomacy policy comes at a cost, but it is also an investment. Moroccans know very well what they are doing. “

In October, The Gambia, Sierra Leone and South Sudan will participate in an international tournament with the Cherifian selection in El Jadida and Mohammedia. Moroccans will also be received in partner countries, as was the case with the women’s selection in Ghana or during an executive training session in Liberia. An opportunity to position itself again on the chessboard of sports diplomacy, while waiting to once again run for the World Cup… in 2030.

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