Casablanca, Morocco – In the old town of Casablanca, tags and murals reflecting football club Wydad AC’s past and present can be found everywhere.
The team’s die-hard fans are renowned as some of the most passionate and organised globally, famous for their “tifo”: choreographed displays of support involving huge banners and flags.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
These supporters have been gearing up to cheer on this year’s African Champions League winners, who will take on Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal on Saturday in the second round of the FIFA Club World Cup that began this week in Morocco.
“We are ‘ultras’,” a member of the Winners 2005 fan group, who did not want to share their name, tells me.
“It’s our job to represent the club.”
The name Winners 2005 reflects the year when the so-called “ultras” culture became popular in Morocco. The term “ultra” was first used in Italy but is now associated with any fanatical group of supporters.
Despite being relatively young and mostly students, the members of Winners 2005 are filled with a deep sense of the club’s decades-old history and what it means to be a Wydad fan.
“This team is about resistance,” another supporter said. “Resistance and nationalism. Our grandparents fought to make this club. We carry on that fight.”
It is Wydad’s origin story that informs the feelings the team inspires in its supporters.
During French occupation, access to sports facilities in Morocco was limited so some in the country decided in the mid-1930s to form their own club. Wydad Athletic Club began as a water-polo team but quickly grew to include football. The side went on to become a symbol of the nationalist movement whenever they played.
“Wydad is a source of hope, a source of life,” said Mohamed Zahnoun, a Wydad fan who has been watching the team for more than 50 years.
“It gives me a vision of a beautiful world; it’s how I breathe, how I forget my problems,” he added.
“After a week of work, I get to go on an adventure with my love. It’s a love that can only be understood by those who have grown up with the club.”
When I suggested to another supporter, Mohammed Kiddi, that the fans are Wydad’s 12th player, his response was one of laughter.
“Not the 12th – no, no, no,” he said. “We are the first.”
Wydad are Morocco’s most successful side, with 22 league titles to their name, but this is only their second appearance at the Club World Cup.
The 19th edition of the tournament brings together the respective champions of each of FIFA’s six premier regional competitions, alongside the host nation’s league champions.
In addition to Wydad and Al Hilal, the teams participating this year are Flamengo (Brazil); Al Ahly (Egypt); Auckland City (New Zealand); Real Madrid (Spain); and Seattle Sounders (United States).
“We are the champions of Africa and we fear no one,” said Kiddi, before the Al Hilal encounter.
“Playing in Morocco gives us a big advantage. It won’t just be Wydad fans supporting the team but the whole of the country.”