Calls for calm as tensions flare between Moroccans, Tunisians over football controversy

Supporters of the rival clubs lashed out at each other on social media and complained that standards of “fair play” had been violated.
Saturday 08/06/2019
Esperance supporters react during the second leg of the 2019 CAF Champion League finals between Tunisia's Esperance and Morocco's Wydad Casablanca. (AFP)
Esperance supporters react during the second leg of the 2019 CAF Champion League finals between Tunisia's Esperance and Morocco's Wydad Casablanca. (AFP)

TUNIS - A dispute over the final leg of an African football championship match has sparked bitter acrimony between neighbours Tunisia and Morocco ahead of the African Cup of Nations tournament later this month.

Tensions flared after African football’s governing body ruled that the final leg of the championship game — played between Tunisia’s Esperance and Morocco’s Wydad Casablanca in Tunis — must be replayed in a neutral venue.

The previous game ended in controversy after Wydad players walked off the pitch in protest that a video replay system (VAR) was unavailable to review a disallowed goal that would have equalised the match.

Tunisia’s Esperance was leading 1-0 in the game and 2-1 in the series before the stoppage about sixty minutes in. The home team was eventually awarded the victory after it was determined play would not resume.

But CAF said Wednesday that Tunisia would have to return the trophy and replay the match at an outside venue because “the playing and security conditions were not met” at the home field, “preventing the match from reaching its conclusion.”

Some security concerns were raised during the stoppage when enraged attendees began hurling objects, including plastic bottles, at the Moroccan players and staff. The situation was brought under control, but some feared that cancelling the game would spell trouble in an overcrowded stadium.

Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, who presented Esperance with the championship trophy after the abandoned match, later called the confederation’s ruling to have the game replayed a "charade" and pledged to defend "the case of Esperance and any other Tunisian teams.” 

Esperance said it would appeal CAF’s decision and “take all legal measures to preserve its rights.”

Questions over Esperance’s initial victory and CAF’s reversal unleashed a storm of controversy on social media, with supporters of the rival clubs lashing out at each other and complaining that standards of “fair play” had been violated.  

Contention grew as official groups from both countries weighed in on the drama, sometimes leveling sharp insults at their African neighbours. 

One Facebook post attributed to the Moroccan Armed Forces criticised Tunisia’s security competence, stating “there's a difference between a country that in 2019 is struggling to even organise an ordinary football meeting and another that competes with countries like the US and Canada for the World Cup and for whom organising ordinary events is simply routine.”

The Tunisian National Guards' union responded on Facebook by taking aim at the Moroccan monarchy and highlighting Tunisia’s status as a democratic state.

“Thank God that Tunisia is a free independent republic where people stand in line...at voting centres to choose their representatives as part of a democracy,” read the social media post.

Some remarked that the feud had gone too far and that the neighbouring countries should not let something as trivial as sports divide them. The Tunisian and Moroccan journalist syndicates denounced "the politicisation of an ordinary game" and warned of “deviations” from professional ethics.

But to many fans — who are passionate about the game but deeply suspicious of corruption within its ranks — the drama, reflecting a sense of mistrust that goes beyond sports, is likely only beginning.  

“The CAF’s decision is not fair,” said Esperance fan Houssem Akrout. “At first they said the problem was with the VAR, but then at (their) meeting in Paris they changed that and said it was because Tunisia was not safe and secure.”

“That’s why it became a political problem.”

Tunisia has gone to great lengths to improve its security after two terror attacks in 2015 killed dozens of mostly European tourists. The country has not suffered a major terrorist attack since that year.

Tunisian PM Chahed, in remarks about the CAF ruling, made a point of praising Tunisia’s security services and standing behind the popular football club.  

"Following the farce of the CAF, I would like to pay tribute to the work done by the security forces," Chahed wrote on Twitter. "We will not just give up the rights of Esperance Tunis or those of any other Tunisian team."

CAF Chairman Ahmad Ahmad, on the other hand, reportedly sided with Wydad over the episode, saying that the team’s disputed goal should have been allowed.

But in a separate turn of events that deepened suspicion of corruption within African sports, Ahmad was detained in Paris on Thursday for questioning over a graft probe, before being released. 

The world’s football's governing body (FIFA) said it had "taken note of the alleged events concerning Mr Ahmad Ahmad, who is being investigated…in relation to allegations related to his mandate while President of CAF” and said it had asked "the French authorities for any information" that might be of interest to its Ethics Commission.

A rematch between Esperance and Wydad Casablanca would likely be held late July, after the African Cup of Nations’ comes to a close July 19. Egypt and South Africa have been weighed as possible venues.