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The Ground Hopping Exploits of a Man from Down Under

Part Three - Tunis II

The ground had seats along each side and these were the only areas that had been opened to supporters with tickets (including me!). The capacity of the ground is about 65,000 although by closing off each end it is reduced to about half that (with the exception of the area allocated to us Raja supporters). At a best guess, the seating capacity along each touch line is around 28,000 in total. The rest can stand of sit on the terraces behind each goal. The far end of the ground behind the curve of the athletics track was empty. No tickets had been sold for this area where there were no seats. This applied at the opposite end where the only exception was to open the lower tier to Raja Casablanca supporters where no tickets had been issued. You just had to (supposedly) present your Moroccan passport to gain entry. I walked through the large tunnel and started to soak up the atmosphere. Dinner was bought from a bored looking man who had boxes of bread rolls filled with something.

The best vantage point was at the back of the lower tier. There was a no go zone to keep Raja supporters away from the Esperance supporters who occupied the seats along each side of the ground. There was a fence to prevent anyone crossing the line as well as a police presence patrolling that invisible line that ran from the lower reaches of the terracing to the top.

And so we (us Raja supporters) awaited kick off. As the teams came out for a warm up, the Esperance supporters found their voices and started to sing and cheer. The home choir, who effectively filled the stands along both touchlines, lifted the roof of the stadium. The Raja supporters remained quiet. Kick off followed and the Esperance supporters became quiet. Why I don’t know. On the other hand, the Raja supporters came alive and began their vocal support. They kept this up throughout the game. The only exceptions were when they stopped to get their breath and when Esperance scored.

When Esperance scored, the homes fans came to life, but it soon faded again and Raja supporters took up the cheering and singing. There appeared to be four groups of Raja supporters, identified by large banners / flags that they held aloft, the most noticeable being the Ultras. Whilst the majority of Raja fans were young Moroccan males, there were also a lot of young females and some young children. Most had something ‘green’. Scarves, shirts and flags draped round shoulders were the dress of choice. And because the green Raja kit clashed with the Red and Yellow striped shirts of Esperance, for this game Raja wore their away kit – all white.

Half time and it was 1-0 to the home side. The Raja supporters were not dispirited. Five minutes into the second half and Raja equalised. This was the signal for Esperance fans to become even quieter and the Raja supporters lifted a gear in their singing and cheering. Shortly afterwards Raja scored again with a fine goal. If the equaliser had encouraged Raja fans to lift the roof, this one helped them not only lift the roof but send it into orbit. The flares came out and were lit. The smoke created from so many flares created a huge smoke screen. The pitch was no longer visible. I was standing at the back of all the Raja fans so the effect was minimal on me. I did try to move towards one side so that I could see the resumption of play, but the police wouldn’t allow me to wander into the no man’s land that remained as an empty buffer zone between home and away supporters. Some young children were affected with smoke in their eyes. They were allowed to be taken into the buffer zone to have their eyes washed with bottled water. Credit to the police who assisted the children’s father.

Being an enclosed bowl, the smoke took a while to drift away. There was no breeze to take it away. Raja were on the ascendancy and it looked curtains for Esperance when one of their players swung an arm and elbowed a Raja player in the face – right under the nose of the referee. No whistle; play on! There was no reaction from the Raja supporters. Later they told me that the referee was from The Gambia and was well known for being weak when it came to tough decisions. Eventually Esperance scored an equaliser. The home fans went wild and the Raja fans started to throw bottles of water across the buffer zone towards the Esperance supporters in the seated stand. (There’s a bit of a contradiction. You ‘sit in a stand’). The police with their riot gear sprang into action as 20 or so young shirtless Raja supporters charged towards the buffer zone. The police created a mini barrier and the charging Raja fans just stopped, didn’t try to break through the police line and just started to hurl abuse towards the home fans some 30 metres away. In addition, they continued to lob water bottles, 99% of which fell short of their target. Esperance fans lobbed a few water bottles back and the police just stood there watching. There was no need for them to antagonise any supporters by charging in. No damage was being done. You could almost say it was civilised rioting.

Mr Bean Tunis style

Terror Fan with couple of young Raja fans

Next up - Ewens previous venture back into Europe

The game ended 2-2. Raja had achieved their goal of a point which ensured they qualified for the quarter finals of the African Champions League. Esperance also qualified as winners of the group. I made my way down the steps of the terracing and headed towards the exit only to be stopped by a policeman. Raja supporters were being held back after the game to give Esperance supporters the chance to escape. Suddenly I didn’t want to be a Raja supporter. I played the “Je suis anglais” card. Didn’t work. We had to wait there for 40 minutes until the way was clear for us to all walk back to Rades station to get the train back to Tunis. There was nothing I could do. The Raja supporters were all very happy, taking selfies, singing and generally just relaxing in the knowledge that they were in the quarter finals. The police just stood around chatting. One appeared and I thought he looked very familiar. Finally, it registered with my sub conscious mind. He was the splitting image of Mr Bean – Tunis style. I stood by the exit for about 10 minutes and then the policeman who had told me I had to wait 40 minutes gave me the nod and a flick of the head to silently say “off you go”. I didn’t need asking twice. Perhaps the walking stick that I had helped a bit and the emotional card worked. Off I went to find the outside of the stadium just about empty.

I had hoped to tag along behind Esperance supporters and walk with them back to the station. But there was no one. So I had to try and remember the route in reverse. You know what it’s like when you try to retrace your steps. Everything is the other way around and always looks different from when you took the route from the other direction.

The car park was almost empty – the home supporters obviously got away quickly. I retraced my steps and managed to make progress. Eventually I got to a roundabout and took the wrong exit. I asked a local the direction to the station but just got an answer that suggested he wasn’t being helpful. Then, back at the roundabout, a mass of people started to appear. They were walking from the direction of the stadium and heading towards Rades station. They were the Raja supporters. So off I hobbled back towards the roundabout to follow my fellow Moroccans in the quest for the last train back to Tunis. It was a sort of Conga line and I joined somewhere in the middle. My fellow Raja fans were in good spirits. They were orderly and kept up a good pace back to the station. I tried to keep up but gradually those behind me overtook and eventually I was at the rear of the line. I soldiered on but it made no difference. Even the police escort vehicle that was going so slowly, any slower and it would have been going backwards, overtook me. I was losing touch.

Eventually the police car stopped and one of the policemen got out and directed a comment in his best Arabic towards me. The gist was (as far as I could work out) was that he wanted me to go around the vehicle on the right side to continue my journey. So, I obliged. Then a Raja supporter saw what I was doing and stopped me saying something that I couldn’t understand. Finally, I got the gist of what was happening. The police were “ordering” me to get into their vehicle. Was I under arrest I wondered? I meekly got in (my feet and knees were pleased for the relief) and slowly the police vehicle continued at the snail’s pace it had been travelling at. My new best friend and fellow Raja supporter walking alongside the vehicle spoke to me through the window. Was he a lawyer I wondered? I used the “Je suis anglais” line again and suddenly he was speaking excellent English. It turned out that the police were giving me a lift as they didn’t want me to miss the train. They didn’t speak English, but their French was good and I was very grateful.

We arrived at the station and I alighted from my short custodial sentence and headed to the platform and a very crowded train. Suddenly my new best Raja friend was part of a group of about eight supporters. We got on the train and I braced myself for half an hour of strap hanging back to Tunis. But no, they cleared a path and vacated a seat for the old man and again gratefully I sat down. The whole journey back to Tunis was spent talking football. They were fascinated by the fact that I should want to go to the game and adopted me fully as one of their own. The person sitting next to me was finding online highlights of the game on his phone and the discussion point became centred around the second Esperance goal. There was an offside in the leadup to the shot that went in. They were annoyed. They were upset at the below par referee from The Gambia (they had encountered him before it appears – either that or his reputation of being weak when it came to making big decisions) but they were amazing. They just shrugged it off. There were no histrionics. They didn’t take it out on Tunisian railways. That was life! We arrived at Tunis station and disgorged ourselves onto the platform and stood there. Perhaps for about 10 minutes or more. The police were clearing the way up ahead to make sure there were no Esperance supporters around.

Eventually the Raja fans were able to exit the station. There was one last thing to do though. An emotional and excited Raja fan (one of my new best friends) proudly gave me his sweat soaked Raja polo shirt. He was so proud to give it to me to thank me for supporting his team. I couldn’t say no, could I? Then they insisted on a group photo as we stood on the platform and I proudly held up the shirt. (Sadly, it is a size too small, something I discovered after it had been washed when I got home. I have an incentive to try and lose weight now.) We walked off the platform and to the concourse of the station where I said my farewell’s. Unfortunately, they never sent me the photo so you’ll have to take my word for all this.

I made my way back to the hotel, buoyed by an uplifting night of friendship, an unexpected game of football in the African Champions League between the holders and the wanna be holders. Oh, and don’t forget, I got into the ground for the game without paying anything. The ticket I did buy becomes a souvenir. Try that at the Bernabeu or Nou Camp!

Post Script. The Quarter Finals saw Raja Casablanca advance to the Semi Finals whilst Esperance, the holders, lost. Also, through to the semi-finals were Raja’s fiercest cross town rivals, Wydad Casablanca. Raja supporters just refer to them as WC which is where they believe they belong. The Semi Finals sees two Moroccan teams facing two Egyptian teams. They’ll be played in early May, Covid19 permitting.