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Rabat (AFP) – Decades of rivalry between North African neighbors Morocco and Algeria spread to the football field, with the Moroccan team excluded from the African Championship of Nations (CHAN).
Atlas Lions’ under-23 team, which has won the last two CHAN tournaments, withdrew its participation on Friday after host Algeria refused to allow direct flights from Rabat.
Algeria closed its airspace to all Moroccan flights in September 2021, a month after severing ties. CHAN organizers said the team may have made an indirect flight.
Fouzi Lekjaa, president of Morocco’s FRMF football federation, said it was “really saddening that the Moroccan national team has been deprived of this chance, which has been seriously preparing for six months to join CHAN and defend its title.”
An AFP photographer said the team left Rabat-Sale airport on Friday afternoon after waiting for hours at the green light to take off to Constantine, Algiers.
He added that the photographer, actors and technical team boarded a bus and left the airport, where they had been waiting since the early hours of the morning.
The Algerian organizing committee said last week that the host has no obligation to allow players to arrive via direct flights, Moroccan news site Hespress reported.
According to Hespress, committee chairman Rachid Oukali stated that most of the other teams will likely take a break on the way.
Algeria severed diplomatic ties with Morocco in August 2021, citing the kingdom’s “hostile actions” and accusing it of spying on top officials.
The two countries are in fierce rivalry, in part over the disputed region of Western Sahara, where the Algerian-backed Polisario movement has sought an independence referendum.
In 2020, the United States recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over the region in exchange for re-establishing ties with Israel – upsetting Algeria, which has for decades viewed Algeria as the main defender of North Africa’s Palestinian cause.
The Moroccan football federation said on Thursday it received information from the Confederation of African Football (CAF) last month that Algeria had granted “an authorization in principle” for a direct flight from Rabat to Constantine.
However, FRMF announced that it canceled its participation in CHAN, adding that the flight was not confirmed.
Morocco’s foreign ministry said later on Thursday that the team will actually travel, leading to hours of waiting at the airport.
Algeria had not confirmed whether it had approved the flight.
While the Moroccan team waited in Rabat, Gianni Infantino and Patrice Motsepe, presidents of world governing body FIFA and CAF respectively, arrived from Algeria, where they attended the opening of a new stadium.
Motsepe said he was “sorry” that the team wasn’t able to travel for the tournament.
“I want these young people to represent the Moroccan people and the African people as well,” he said at the airport.
“I’ve spent the last few days doing everything possible,” he added, to make the journey easier.
Motsepe said Algerian authorities told him they were looking into the matter, but “they said it was a matter of sovereignty”.
While in Rabat, the CAF and FIFA chiefs also participated in the draw for the FIFA Club World Cup, which will start on 1 February in Morocco.
Morocco made history last month by becoming the first African or Arab team to reach the semi-finals of a World Cup.
© 2023 AFP