RABAT – It’s because political parties and trade unions are not doing their job of guiding, structuring and educating the masses that stadiums in Morocco have become places of choice for raising slogans and participating in chants with a political edge, while making it look like part of sporting fun and rivalry between fans.
Diehard sports fans are known as “Ultras,” known for unshakable loyalty to their teams and for making a show of that loyalty. They have in-group language and codes and do not shy from peppering their displays with political slogans and songs.
In Morocco, fans of the Army football team are remembered for their satirical “Siesta in the Parliament” and there is the politically charged chant “I Was Wronged in My Own Country” by fans of the Raja football club.
Sports fans used to raise banners against sports institutions but now most banners seen inside stadiums have a political message. Sociologist Said Bennis said stadiums have replaced the usual sites for protest, such as near government institutions or in main streets. Stadiums are where individual and collective political training takes place and episodic militant manifestations occur.
The popularity of the song “I Was Wronged in My Own Country” shows its creators knew what they wanted to achieve through it. The lyrics and ideas conveyed caught the attention of researchers.
Bennis noted that, after March 2018, the rhetoric used in protest messages and songs had become more radical with strong social and political demands to improve the conditions of young Moroccans. The demands were quickly synthesised and shared via online media.
Hassan Tafrout, professor of Education and Sociology at the College of Education of the University of El Qadi Ayad in Marrakech, said fans and flares have become ingredients for show and stadium fun. The colourful shows put on by fans reached high levels of professionalism to the point that they have become known internationally.
The Ultra “Winners” group is ranked seventh globally for showmanship while the “Green Boys” ranked 11th. The Ultras groups acquired such tremendous power that they can influence events within football circles or outside them, including pressure their team to remove a club president, Tafrout said.
Bennis said the politically loaded messages in stadiums represent a societal shift as sports competitions have become “pretexts” to create new space for youth protests. He pointed out that the shift questions the nature of stadium protests and presents a challenge to defining the identity of the protesters, taking into account differences in political dynamics of each country and the social and cultural conditions that led to this activity, keeping in mind that this form of protest emerged with the rise of a digital citizenship.
Researchers have spoken of a political void in need of elites aware of its realities. As for football fans, they have ways to express their angst and vent anger.
One banner read in Moroccan Arabic: “You wanted us not to study; you wanted us not to work; you wanted us not to grow aware.” Another one showed the cryptic message: “You gave us Valium to keep us quiet; but in the end, I’m confused and I need to understand.”
Bennis said such new protest messages overlap between a feeling of belonging to Moroccan society and the desire for activism to influence the public policy.
Rokaya al-Shamal, a researcher on youth issues, said she wondered if the messages raised by the Ultras were directed at the audiences of the stadiums or perhaps were meant for those outside the stadium. She said fans were trying to be creative and cynically subtle in projecting their expectations of the new development model, seeking to truthfully and courageously convey the pulse of the society, even if that truth is hard and bitter.
She compared the Rajaclub fans to a committee whose task was to define parameters of the development model, with impartiality and innovation.
Shamal expressed hope that the country’s elites would take a cue from the audacity of sports fans and depict social reality objectively and find innovative alternatives if they wish to retain credibility and influence on society.
Taking such a cue, opposition party Al-Istiqlal called for an objective analysis of the supporters’ messages, considering that the social moment requires all political actors to monitor youth phenomena with a sense of responsibility.
The Party for Progress and Socialism suggested paying “attention to these expressions and come up with what is required to restore credibility to serious political action and to the social and institutional means of action.”
Football fans play a tough and dangerous political game. They are uncompromising in their judgments and know no boundaries. Their politically charged chants and stadium performances should not be discarded as playful sporting fun. They’re often co-opted to settle political scores.
Bennis said protests are no longer confined to youthful fans and Ultras of a particular football team or city. They have become a commonly shared symbol of political action. The region’s populations find in its civilised interactions and strong, innovative and eloquent rhetoric a common language to challenge official and institutional narratives.