Some A-League ‘active fan’ perspective from the stands in Casablanca

Kris Swales Columnist

By , Kris Swales is a Roar Expert

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    Think the A-League’s most active of ‘active fans’ have a tendency to be a little too active? So did I, until I lobbed into Casablanca two hours before the local derby between arch-rivals Raja Club Athletic and Wydad Athletic Club on Sunday.

    Raja is the current powerhouse of Moroccan football, established in 1949 with 10 titles since its inception, while older brother WAC has taken out the Botola league 11 times since entering in 1937.

    With the teams in first and third place on the ladder respectively and the competition on the home stretch, there’s more than mere pride at stake today – this is real life and death stuff.

    From what I can translate of my taxi driver’s French inbound from the airport, local police have had to stamp down on football hooliganism in recent times.

    Not always successfully though, with 193 fans of WAC and inter-city rivals FAR de Rabat arrested after alleged acts of vandalism following a match on April 12 – and that was after a draw.

    After checking in at my hotel, the same driver delivers me to Complexe Mohamed V, Casablanca’s home of football since 1955.

    We collect a Raja fan along the way, dressed head to toe in merchandise and wearing the team’s flag as a cape, before alighting several blocks from the ground.

    Raja colours are close enough to Canberra Raiders lime for me, so I’m on the bandwagon.

    My new friend buys us tickets at 50 Moroccan Dirhams apiece (roughly $5.70 each), slips me a beanie with the Raja logo and ‘Ultras Ultras’ printed on it in honour of the team’s fan group, and we slowly make our way towards the stadium.

    A heavy police presence and temporary fencing is in place in the surrounding streets, with corridors funnelling fans into the concrete fortress.

    I’m patted down on three separate occasions by police bearing batons before entering the complex, from which the roar of the crowd is already rising 20 minutes before kick-off.

    The 55,000 capacity ground is perhaps 30 percent full, the majority gathered at the Raja end of the ground.

    WAC, meanwhile, have just one or two thousand fans scattered across the southern end, the empty stands in protest against the performance of the team’s president and committee.

    The contrast in fan groups reminds me of the old Brisbane Roar versus Gold Coast United Boxing Day derbies at Robina, albeit on a far grander scale. Not just grander, but much, much louder and far better organised.

    The Raja fans operate with slightly chaotic military precision. A handful are down on ground level, marshalling the troops in the stands above.

    Some perch precariously on the cement ledge which overlooks the 3m wide by 5m deep chasm separating the cement terraces from the running track around the pitch, holding one end of green strings that run upwards to divide the crowd into bays.

    Half a dozen drummers lock into a tribal groove that doesn’t stop until half-time. Flags in team colours are handed out. Plastic effigies of people I don’t recognise are raised. Instructions are shouted in French and Arabic.

    My neighbour unfurls the sheet of rolled up green plastic that’s stuck to the cement below me, hands it over, and I raise it to join the sea of green and white waving to the heavens as the players enter the ground.

    The energy is electric, but there’s more than just excitement in the air. There’s an undercurrent of anger, impossible to quantify yet alone describe, and I know this isn’t the place for a 35-year-old casual observer to be standing.

    I try to make my way up the stands for a less frantic vantage point. It’s close to kick-off and the swarm of increasingly shirtless teens and twenty-somethings surges.

    I almost lose my footing, somehow lose my mobile phone, yet force my way into clear space in the upper reaches of the stands.

    I need a beer. There aren’t any bars.

    In full-flight, the Raja Ultras are an impressive sight. They chant, they dance, they wave flags. And like football’s version of the Beastie Boys, they trade lines of a team song with two other fan groups in the sideline stands.

    Even with relatively few people in attendance, the atmosphere is a step up from my previous international football experience at a full Craven Cottage and with 50,000-plus in San Siro.

    On the pitch, however, Raja is getting carved up by a far more creative WAC – particularly their strikers, whose footwork is almost as dazzling as their relentless diving.

    When WAC’s Khaled Sekkat curls in a free kick after 31 minutes, the silence at the Raja end is deafening.

    He celebrates with a somersault, while WAC fans run wildly around the southern terraces like a group of angry ant-sized Donkey Kongs from the original ’80s arcade game.

    A flare goes off in the Ultras section, and it’s waved tauntingly at what must be club-appointed keepers of the peace on the athletics track.

    A fist fight breaks out and fans scatter, with a nearby group of uniformed security so engrossed in the game that they don’t even notice.

    Raja go into the half-time break down 1-0, and whatever rocket their manager puts up them at halftime certainly inspires them as they run towards their supporters in the second half.

    It takes a WAC own goal off a 63rd minute corner to get the equaliser though, triggering mayhem from the Ultras.

    I get up from my spot and run to the very back of the stands as the Donkey Kongs in green get their chance to explode. Primal screams abound. This doesn’t feel like a celebration so much as a release of rage.

    The goal is a catalyst for the mass lighting of flares, with 11 in total set off and passed around the crowd over the next 15 minutes.

    At one stage there are four bellowing smoke simultaneously, again waved at officials before being tossed onto the track where they’re doused in bins by firemen.

    Some fans take the mayhem as the cue to move to more sedate areas of the stands, while I’m just thankful that I’m not in the thick of it.

    Casablanca has its share of problems with unemployment and crime, and it’s perhaps that disillusion manifesting itself when the lid blows off the pressure cooker here.

    Do Australian football fans have similar concerns to rail against?

    A minority, maybe, but the lion’s share of antics involving The Den, The Cove and the Red and Black Bloc are about supporting their team and nothing more.

    The alleged smashing of chairs at the A-League final and physical assault of a Melbourne Heart fan this season past are unacceptable, but the occasional bit of inappropriate sing-song is barely a drop in the ocean compared to derby day in Casablanca.

    The match official blows his whistle three times with the scores locked at 1-1. Though sunset is still two hours away I pocket my Raja beanie on the walk home, just to be on the safe side.