Last summer I was one of those England fans who traveled an extortionate and lengthy distance to watch them play a nil-nil draw against Bryan Ruiz's Costa Rica. Supporting England comes with a rhythmic feel of disappointment and I never felt it more than on that 24 hour coach ride back from Belo Horizante. The fact I was reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road under a faint light probably didn't help. But six months on I've got that feeling again but this time for my distant, beloved Atlas Lions.
Fortunately for me I am legally allowed to have a second national team: Morocco. The African Cup of Nations offers me a fresh, and far more enjoyable, experience of being a football fan. As a consequence of my Moroccan father moving to England in 1970 and meeting my mother in some pub in Romford I have, by illogical football law, the right to support Morocco. I don’t speak Arabic, my French is confined to the present and past tense and I haven’t even visited the country. Nevertheless, I have owned every shirt since 1997 (even if they were invariably fake and fit for a large Moroccan adult) and can also eat harissa for breakfast without any awareness of it being odd. I'm still able to reel off all of Morocco's classic Premiership players: Chippo, Safri, the Hadji brothers, Kachloul, Naybet, El Kadouri...the golden generation. I prefer not to think about Chamakh or Taarabt.
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Back in the year 2000 when I was a ten year old, my twin brother and I made a promise to appear at the 2014 World Cup and represent our father's country like some olive skinned De Boer brothers. We assumed it would be easy. However, as you can guess, neither us nor Morocco played at the World Cup. My brother's a Web Designer and spends his weekend at Electricity Showroom and I'm in Marketing and take the £1 Magic Bus everyday. In spite of this and all logic, perhaps we were misguided all those years ago and it is the 2015 African Cup of Nations that we were meant to pull our green and red jerseys on inside Oujda's Stade d'Honneur Stadium. At least it wouldn’t be as bizarre as Chris Birchall playing for Trinidad & Tobago.
Every two years they reappear on my TV with an entirely new team and enliven an increasingly dormant football passion. Whilst watching Morocco lamely pass the ball around during the last African Cup of Nations and show the occasional sign of athleticism I didn’t fall into rages over Lampard or Gerrard or Danny Mills. Instead I sat with some Moroccan tea and enjoyed them perform without the bloated production budget and pressure of the modern spectacle of the Barclay's Premier League.
Whenever watching coverage of the African Nations Cup you are able to witness prolific moments of eccentricity ranging from each team’s choreographed jig at the corner flag, to goalkeepers’ springing from the ground by their arse, ludicrous amounts of added time and some amateur commentators clearly completing their GCSE work experience. At the last tournament the former Sierra Leone international, Leroy Rosenior, described one player from Cape Verde as “looking a bit like that pop singer Usher”. But all these incongruities contribute to the joy of the experience. The main commentator, who I have always and will always refer to as simply ‘The Eurosport Man’, seems to be ubiquitous across the station and holds knowledge of every sport. He can also pronounce every player’s name with the perfect accent. Even Chahir Belghazouani.
To refresh your memory of Morocco's last venture, after a disappointing 0-0 draw against Angola, and a final group game match against South Africa lined-up, Morocco needed to win against a country with a population of 500,000. After an abject opening 30 minutes wherein Nadir Lamyaghri vindicated his forename, Platini scored for Cape Verde inside the Moses Mabhida Stadium to put them 1-0 up. Despite appearing as the exact physical opposite of the former France captain, Cape Verde’s Platini looked like an intelligent footballer. The game had a staccato feel to it with the referee stopping play for a free-kick at a rate of almost two a minute. This hindrance allowed time for my father to tell me how ‘Belhanda’ translates to ‘teapot’ in Arabic (even google can’t help me vindicate this) and that as a child his mother would get a turtle, smash it and then feed it to him as medicine.
Yet, those warm chaotic memories that kept me optimistic as I stopped at bus stops across Brazil eating starchy coxinhas have proved futile. With the scandal of Morocco pulling out of the African Cup of Nations, not only have my last, desperate vestiges of professional football on the big stage receded but another opportunity to witness an international team of mine lift a trophy. Even if it would've been the latest version of the Abdelaziz Abdallah Salem Trophy / the flaxen fruit bowl.
Nevertheless, there is something endearing about the African Cup of Nations. It doesn't feel like you are watching a product or an intensity-fuelled-duel-between two-mass-titans-of-world-sport-for-a-battle-of-revenge or whaany of that Super Sunday rhetoric. Instead, you are watching some atavistic version of the game, an example of football unfettered by half-time punditry and gadgets that move players around on a touch screen or rolling news hype.
I remember being fourteen and calling my father in Morocco the evening after Tunisia beat them in the final of 2004. Like a shout from up from a cave he answered and through the lame phone connection and a hammering of pans in the background he began speaking to me in Arabic. After a pause and a a realisation of his mistake, he switched to English and in his own way told me how the country was in tears and it was like their World Cup Final.
Although I can feign and follow a different team, I urge everyone to give the African Cup of Nations Cup a chance this month. If only for the experience of watching football vacant of media hype and television hoodwinking. Throw a dart at a map, look through your lineage or just insolently lie about your background and choose a team to follow. Conversely, you can just do a Diego Costa and foster dreams of playing in the tournament yourself.