On the surface, Morocco and South Africa — planted at either end of the African map — are only separated by scores of countries. Look deeper, though, and so much more exists between those two: history, mostly cold and unpleasant.
I’ll spare you the details, but not a summary.
Over four decades ago, Morocco fully annexed Western Sahara, territory that covers the former’s southern space.
A bloody crusade against that move — led by the resistant Polisario Front — ensued and stretched for years afterwards, culminating in Western Sahara gaining a measure of independence although Morocco maintains quite a grip.
Of the countries friendly to Polisario’s proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), South Africa offers a particularly warm embrace.
See, the African National Congress (ANC) — SA’s own famous liberation movement that successfully attained its objectives in the early nineties and has clung to power ever since – has long considered the freedom-fighting Polisario kindred, a stance reflected in the South African government granting official recognition to SADR in 2004.
That set the ‘Rainbow Nation’ on a collision course with Morocco (which promptly recalled its ambassador and has never returned one) and, 14 years later, there’s no love lost.
It’s why South Africa explicitly made known its unwillingness to support to Morocco’s bid for the 2026 FIFA World Cup well in advance of the North Africans’ June 2018 showdown with the three-pronged North American challenge.
“We are very clear that we can’t support Morocco,” South African sports minister Thokozile Xasa said at the time.
Several countries allied to South Africa in the COSAFA region were inclined to do same, including neighbouring Namibia whose FA executive committee member Mpasi Haingura argued: “it would be a disgrace for the NFA to support Morocco’s bid to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup.”
South Africa and Namibia indeed stuck to that course, not reckoned among the 65 nations that backed Morocco during the ballot and joined by four more COSAFA countries.
That’s more than half of the votes Morocco lost in Africa, and the kingdom would be in no hurry to forget such hostility.
Granted, there’s been a thawing of relations these days, following a meeting between King Mohammed VI of Morocco and then South African President Jacob Zuma on the sidelines of the 5th African Union-European Union Summit this time last year that opened up trade routes between the two.
However, in football — as on the diplomatic front — things remain quite frozen, as has just been explained. And they could get icy still, with the pair in what is effectively a two-horse race to take Cameroon’s place as emergency hosts of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations.
Morocco, which has reportedly coveted the rights long before they were stripped off Cameroon, are motivated by reasons discussed in an earlier article on this website.
South Africa, on the other hand, can easily discern how – like Morocco – hosting the AFCON could help deliver continental glory after years of barrenness, while the nation surely hasn’t forgotten just how economically beneficial it is to stage a major international tournament after milking the juicy FIFA World Cup eight years ago.
That Mundial itself is another bone of contention. South Africa were awarded the rights alright, but it was only at Morocco’s expense — and it gets even more intense when you consider reports which emerged later that the latter was actually victorious prior to alleged manipulation in favor of the opposing bid.
So that’s the backdrop, people; next, the showdown (just a matter of time, it seems, even if neither has officially declared their intent).
A bidding battle that shouldn’t have been could prove the most intriguing yet, and the prospect alone — if not the process itself — is quite mouth-watering.
Wait for it.