Talking soccer in Morocco

2008-02-16 00:00

From the elevated balcony of the Cafe Argada, sipping mint tea and gazing across the seething mass of traders, food stalls, acrobats, storytellers and snake-charmers, it looks as if Jemaa el-Fna has hardly changed in decades, as if time has stood still.

Known to locals simply as “La Place”, this vast square, at once so mesmerising and yet so menacing and untamed, is the central hub of Marrakech and the largest market in Africa.

“So much for your Bafana Bafana,” scoffs a man from behind his winter woollen jellaba, a garment best described as an ankle-length dressing gown with a hood. “They finished bottom of their group at the Africa Cup of Nations and I think it’s going to be really embarrassing for you in 2010.”

“So much for Les Lions de l’Atlas,” I retort. “Morocco didn’t reach the last eight in Ghana either and it doesn’t look like you have much hope of even qualifying for 2010. At least we’ll be there.”

We are sitting at adjacent tables, me stealing a few moments of respite from the bartering, babbling bedlam of the souk, he just passing the time of day, and we’re talking football, as a youth walks by with a Barbary ape chained to his right arm.

“That could have been us,” the Moroccan muses.

“How do you mean?”

“That could so easily have been us, building stadia and getting ready to stage the World Cup, qualifying as hosts. People forget the final vote of the Fifa executive was 14 votes for South Africa and 10 for us. It was as close as two votes either way.”

He’s right, of course, so I say nothing and watch an elderly robed man sit cross-legged on the pavement and start blowing his Berber ox-horn. He prods a viper that initially doesn’t look remotely interested in gyrating, but eventually obliges.

“Anyway,” I reply, swinging back on message. “It isn’t going to be South Africa’s World Cup in 2010. It will be Africa’s World Cup. There won’t be only one host nation; there will be six. Each of the African countries will feel as if they are playing at home.”

“You really think so?”

“There’s no doubt. Whatever happens to Bafana Bafana — and you shouldn’t write off their chances of surprising people and reaching the knock-out phase quite yet — South African supporters will get behind any African team that advances to the later stages of the tournament.”

He doesn’t seem too convinced, mumbling something about all the South Africans he has ever met never having a decent word to say about the rest of the continent. I am tempted to counter that countries north of the Sahara seem to be more Arab than African, but I take the fifth on this issue and pretend not to hear his jibe above the racket of food sellers offering couscous and tagine.

After a while, he devours yet another small pastry doused in syrup and asks: “So you really think an African team can make a serious challenge in 2010?”.

“Well, history is on their side,” I reply. “The World Cup is almost always won by a country from the host continent. Only Brazil have managed to break that trend, winning with an 18-year-old Pele in Sweden in 1958 and then winning in South Korea and Japan in 2002. If you look at the current African teams, you’d probably have to say Ivory Coast have the best chance.”

“What about Egypt?” he says. “They have won the Africa Cup of Nations twice in a row and proved themselves the best organised and most disciplined team on the continent.”

“That’s true,” I agree, “but an African team isn’t going to reach a World Cup semi-final, or a final, or even win the cup, by being organised and disciplined.

“That’s always been the European style and it will be tough to beat them at their own game.

“An African team will only shock the world by playing authentic African football, blending skill and athletic power in uninhibited attack.

“With Toure, Eboue and Drogba, the Ivory Coast have the spine of a team capable of beating anybody.”

“I doubt it,” he sneers. “It’s time for me to go.”

• Edward Griffiths is a journalist, author, former CEO of SA Rugby and general manager of SATV sport. Contact him at www.onesmallvoice.co.za

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