Morocco ‘ultras’ steal football show with passion, pyrotechnics
When Moroccan “ultras” crowd into a football stadium, the loud chants of groups of supporters, the spectacular pyrotechnics and the sometimes rowdy and anti-authoritarian antics often steal the show.
The Casablanca stadium resonates with the chants of passionate supporters of the city’s Wydad club as they hold up colorful placards to form a vast moving mosaic that spells out their motto: “Free Souls”.
The club’s group of hardcore fans, known as the “Winners”, have a reputation for well-deserved flamboyance – singing, setting off smoke bombs and making their mobile phone torches dance like fireflies.
Some 10,000 of them regularly fill the north curve of the Mohammed V stadium in Morocco’s economic capital, where they have a reputation for attracting more attention than action on the pitch.
Thousands of fans are expected to put on their carefully choreographed spectacle once again as the side, who have just won the African Champions League, take part in the Club World Cup which kicked off on Wednesday.
“I cannot describe my love for the Wydad fans, they are very special,” one fan, Houssam Ait Wahman, 18, said ahead of a recent Moroccan league game against Fez which he watched with his mother and her sisters.
“Fans around the world can’t match us,” he boasted of the winners, who came first in a global ranking by “Ultras World,” a popular Facebook page dedicated to the phenomenon.
– ‘Crowd effect’ –
Some ultras in Morocco and beyond have gained a reputation for violence, mainly brawling with rival supporters – but members are quick to defend what they praise as a brotherhood united in their love of the game.
“Supporting Wydad is a passion, a commitment that goes beyond football,” said Mohamed, a former Winner in his thirties who asked not to give his full name.
The winners are part of the international ultra culture, which has a strong following in the football-obsessed North African country.
The image of Moroccan ultras has often been associated with violence between rival groups. After the deaths of two fans in early 2016, authorities banned ultra-fans from playing football pitches across the country for two years.
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Former winner Mohamed blamed ‘crowd effect’ and explained that sometimes ‘all it takes is one person to do something stupid and it all kicks off’.
Moroccan sociologist Abderrahim Bourkia, author of a recent essay on the subculture, said some fans “release their frustrations” by singing, while others resort to violence.
“The solution is to invest in the education of young people,” he said.
– City rivals –
Not to be outdone by the Winners, fans of Wydad’s main rival in Casablanca, Raja, also have a reputation for crowd-pleasing and exuberant performances.
“Making a show is the hallmark of ultras,” Bourkia said. “It’s a way for them to express themselves and showcase themselves.”
Raja’s two ultra groups, the ‘Green Boys’ and the ‘Ultra Eagles’, are known for their overtly left-wing political slogans, both in the stadium and on social media.
Their song “F bladi delmouni” (They oppressed me in my own country) denounces inequalities and social injustices in the kingdom.
The song has spread beyond Morocco’s borders and has been sung by pro-democracy protesters in neighboring Algeria and even by Palestinians.
“Raja fans have a militant culture that gives voice to the voiceless, to stand up against oppression and condemn corruption,” a former Raja ultra told AFP.
The phenomenon turns stadiums into “spaces of free expression”, Bourkia said.
“Being part of the ultras is a unique experience,” said another Raja supporter. “Feeling heard helps build personality.”