Moroccans have been flying into Qatar for their team’s knockout World Cup match against Spain on Tuesday as fans already in the country have been trying desperately to get their hands on tickets.
The last Arab and African side left in World Cup, Morocco has been willed on by some of the most impassioned fans at the tournament, many of whom live and work in Qatar and are hoping to see their team advance to its first quarter-final.
But Morocco’s matches have also been testing for organisers. There was pushing and shoving outside the stadium as ticketless fans gathered ahead of its Dec. 1 defeat of Canada, with some trying to climb the fence.
Ahead of kickoff on Tuesday, security appeared tighter than at other games, with rows of riot police deployed on the ground and on horseback as fans walked towards the stadium.
On Monday night, more than 1,000 Moroccan fans had gathered at the official ticketing office, desperate to attend the match against 2010 champions Spain. Reuters journalists saw at least two scuffles and riot police deploy as the crowd swelled.
One fan said many had left empty-handed.
Some said they had come after seeing social media posts saying the Moroccan embassy and football association would distribute free tickets. Reuters could not reach the Moroccan football federation for comment.
The Moroccan embassy said it had handed out 500 tickets to Moroccans living in Qatar. The Moroccan football team’s official Facebook page had said FIFA had made 5,000 extra tickets available for Morocco fans.
Some have struck lucky, saying they had got tickets from the Moroccan football federation.
One of them was Mohammed-Tayyeb Muhyi, who said he got his ticket after landing in Qatar on Tuesday. He said he had neither a flight nor a match ticket 24 hours earlier.
“We’re in a dream,” he said.
Houda Belkadi El Haloui, who has been in Qatar for three weeks, said she also got a ticket from the federation after it called her and told her to collect it from a coffee shop.
“I had a chance to get one, but I am very afraid for my other brothers and sisters that they will be blocked outside of the stadium. I’m very afraid. I hope the Moroccan supporters will understand that there is a problem. I ask them to stay calm.”
Marshals at the stadium perimeter shouted “show your tickets please” at approaching fans and guards checked for tickets before letting them through. A crowd of Moroccan fans without tickets were waiting beyond the marshals.
“We hope to get in,” said one man, who declined to give his name.
While Morocco, in the last 16 for the first time since 1986, is the underdog, the support of its vociferous, red-clan fans has been seen as a big asset in the first World Cup hosted by an Arab state.
“Atlas Lions carry hopes of a whole continent,” the Moroccan newspaper Maroc Le Jour declared in a front-page headline.
Royal Air Maroc said on Friday it was laying on four extra flights with 270-340 fans on each.
The match may gain piquancy from the familiarity of the opponents. The Spanish mainland is visible from Morocco across the Strait of Gibraltar and thousands of Moroccans live there for work.
As a colonial power, Spain controlled swathes of northern Morocco as well as the disputed territory of Western Sahara, which Rabat sees as its own, and still retains two small North African enclaves at Ceuta and Melilla that Rabat says it should quit.
Diplomatic ties improved this year after Morocco had withdrawn its ambassador to Spain in 2021 in a dispute over Madrid’s handling of medical treatment for a Western Sahara separatist leader.
The Moroccan consulate has asked fans to “show sportsmanship regardless of the result” and to avoid doing anything that could trigger incidents with Spanish fans.