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Morocco v Spain is more than football rivalry, it exposes historic tension

December 6, 2022 at 10:10 am

Morocco’s (R) and Spain’s flag (L) are displayed at a Stadium on June 25, 2018. [OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images]

The Morocco national football team is due to play against Spain today at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar. If Morocco wins, it will be the first Arab football team to reach the quarter finals in the tournament’s history.

However, football rivalry is not the only thing at stake in this match; it also exposes historic tension between the two countries. Social media is already flooded with racist comments about Moroccans citing the crusades in the Iberian Peninsula and featuring fantasy line-ups of Spanish kings from the Reconquista period.

It is evident that the negative Spanish views about Moroccans have their roots in the time when Muslims ruled in Andalusia. That such bigotry can resurface over a football match suggests that the feelings are ingrained in the Spanish psyche.

When Islam swept across North Africa in the 7th century, Muslim commanders set their sights on crossing into the Iberian Peninsula. Tariq Ibn Ziyad, the Amazigh governor of Tangier, crossed the straits with a few thousand soldiers and conquered the southern coast of Iberia after defeating the Visigoth army at Guadalete in 711. The place where he landed is named after him: Jabal [Mountain of] Tariq, now known as Gibraltar. A year later the Umayyad governor of North Africa, Musa Ibn Nusayr, landed in Spain with a much larger Muslim army which conquered the rest of the Iberian Peninsula and established the Umayyad province of Al-Andalus.

In 750, the Abbasids toppled Umayyad rule in Syria. Umayyad Prince Abdel Rahman fled to the Iberian Peninsula to re-establish Umayyad power and create the emirate of Cordoba. At the height of its power, Cordoba was a centre of learning and scholarship, and one of the world’s great cities. For most of the first three and half centuries of the province of Andalusia, what is now called Morocco had little involvement in the Iberian Peninsula save for the occasional use of Amazigh fighters from the north as personal guards or auxiliaries by Umayyad rulers

By the turn of the 10th century, the Umayyad caliphate in Andalusia had collapsed into several independent kingdoms and principalities known as the taifas. Divided and facing the threat of a Christian takeover from Castile and Leon, the taifas turned to Morocco for support.

READ: FIFA allocates additional 5,000 tickets to Morocco for match v Spain

For the next two decades, the Almoravids and Almohads, who both ruled out of Marrakesh, took armies to Iberia to stem the Reconquista, dealing decisive blows to the Christian armies at the Battles of Sagrajas in 1086 and Alarcos in 1195. The Almoravids and Almohads went on to rule most of the Muslim parts of southern Iberia under Maghrebi imperial rule.

After the collapse of the Almohads, the Marinid sultans gained control of a number of port cities in the south of Spain such as Algeciras and Gibraltar which were turned into a Moroccan power base to launch raids against new Christian settlements. This intervention deepened Spanish resentment towards the Moroccans, who they viewed as an obstacle in their way of conquering the peninsula and ousting the Muslim rulers.

Barbary pirates 

With the end of the Grenada war in 1492 and the Christian conquest of Andalusia, the Jewish and Muslim populations were forced by the Inquisition either to convert to Christianity or leave the country. Most opted to settle across the straits of Gibraltar in Morocco.

Some of the former Andalusians turned to piracy to attack Spanish vessels in the Mediterranean seeking revenge for their expulsion. One of the most famous of the “Barbary pirates” was Al-Sayyida Al-Hurra, an Andalusian noblewoman whose family escaped to Morocco after the fall of Grenada. From her base in Tetouaine, Al-Hurra led corsairs in tormenting Spanish vessels and formed an alliance with the Ottoman Admiral (like Gibraltar, another word derived from Arabic: Amir al-Bahr — “Sea leader”) Hayrettin Barbarossa to attack the Iberian coast. Al-Hurra went on to become queen of Morocco after marrying the Wattaid Sultan Ahmed El-Outassi.


In 1911, a weakened Morocco was forced to become a protectorate of France and Spain, with Spain claiming northern Morocco and the Western Sahara region. The Amazigh people of northern Morocco rejected European colonial rule and resisted Spanish colonialism.

In 1921, Spain was dealt its worst colonial defeat by the Rif fighters under Abdel Krim when more than 13,000 Spanish troops were killed in what Spain called the disaster of Annual. Spanish colonisation was pushed out from the Rif region of Morocco until 1925 when France and Spain combined to invade with a combined force of half a million soldiers.

READ: Spanish bank lends $92m to Morocco to buy warship from Spanish firm

Spanish and Moroccan historians allege that Spain used chemical weapons against the Rif population during the conflict; the resultant congenital deformities are still in evidence today. However, Madrid refuses to acknowledge that it committed any war crimes.

Wester Sahara and Spanish enclaves 

Morocco gained its independence from France in 1956, and Spain gave back Moroccan territories in the north of the country, but held on to the coastal city enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. Tarfaya was given back to Morocco in 1958 whereas Ifni was not ceded until 1969 following a short war between 1967 and 1968.

Morocco also claimed that the Western Sahara region was historically part of its territory and called on Spain to surrender the region. In 1975, Spain agreed under international pressure to leave the Western Sahara but opted for a referendum for the locals to decide if they wanted to join Morocco or became an independent nation.

Morocco’s King Hassan II did not accept Spain’s decision and in October 1975, around 350,000 Moroccans accompanied by 20,000 soldiers marched across the border into Western Sahara to take it back from Spain. The Moroccan annexation of Western Sahara through the so-called Green March resulted in conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front, the Sahrawi independence movement which seeks to establish the “Arab Democratic Sahrawi Republic”. The conflict remains unresolved after 47 years and the territory is viewed by the UN as non-self-governing.

READ: Morocco arrests 300 migrants trying to cross border into Spain

The Western Sahara is a bone of contention between Morocco and Spain as Madrid has constantly supported a referendum for the Sahrawi people. In March this year, however, the Spanish made a drastic U-turn. With pressure from Morocco over migration in Ceuta and Melilla, and fearing a loss of economic relations with Rabat, Spain joined a growing list of countries which support Morocco’s proposal for autonomous rule in Western Sahara.

Morocco has also argued against Spain’s sovereignty over Ceuta and Melilla, which have remained under Spanish control since they were colonised in the 15th and 17th century. Madrid asserts that it does not need to relinquish the two cities because they were captured prior to the European colonial period.

Moroccan migrants 

More than 800,000 Moroccans live in Spain, the largest ethnic minority in the country. They face increasing levels of racism and hostility. As well as the general rise of far-right populism and anti-Muslim sentiment across Europe, the history of Andalusia plays a role in the racism faced by Moroccans in Spain. Their presence is viewed by many as an attempt to restore the peninsula to Muslim rule. According to Spain’s interior ministry, of the 1,802 hate crime incidents reported in the country in 2021, nearly 10 per cent were targeted against Moroccans.

This could perhaps explain why Spanish police are reportedly on high alert for the football match between Morocco and Spain, fearing that riots will break out following calls by Spanish “Ultras” on social media to unite and “protect the streets” from Moroccan supporters. Almost 550 years after the Reconquista, its impact is still being felt in Spain and old hostilities lie very close to the surface of what is clearly a fragile society unsure of its identity.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.