Football: Hey Joe, can I play too?

Letter From... Morocco
IN ESSAOUIRA they play football in the footsteps of Jimi Hendrix. When the wind, blowing in off the Atlantic, abates sufficiently, they play along the beach near the small Moroccan fishing port the guitarist frequented for inspiration in the 1960s. When it is too hot to be out of the shade, they play using the town's narrow alleys as their pitch and the arched stone doorways as their goals. Whatever the weather, they play in the central square edged with cafes for tourists who seem bemused that such enjoyment can be had from kicking a stone. The story is the same elsewhere in Morocco - on the sands in Agadir on Sunday mornings (when hundreds take part in 15 or 20-a side games on the beach) and in the souks of Marrakesh - if it can be kicked, you have got yourself a game. Football has come of age in this corner of North Africa.

"How much is the this one?" I asked the shopkeeper, pointing to the red and white ball hanging next to the replica shirts bearing the name Moustapha Hadji (the country's latest greatest player, recently voted African player of the year for 1998) outside Essaouira's only sports shop.

"A hundred and twenty dirhams (pounds 8)," the shopkeeper said, adding, as if there were some strange significance to the fact, "and we have one in green and white."

"I'll give you 100," I said, making an obligatory attempt at haggling.

The shopkeeper considered for a second before lowering his price to 110. I pulled all my money from my pocket and found I had 109.5.

"A hundred and nine," I said, and the shopkeeper went into the back of the shop, found a deflated green ball on a shelf, and asked his assistant to inflate it with a car-tyre pump. I gave the spare half dirham to an old lady with an outstretched palm, but, as she took it, she kept one eye on the ball.

Quite why a football should command such interest is a mystery. Perhaps the mere fact that it was not a stone. Perhaps because, unlike the town or most things in it, it was gleaming new. Or perhaps because the country's passion for the game is increasing due to Hadji's award and the national side being on the up and up.

Morocco may have had some illustrious characters in its footballing history (such as Hajd Lardi Benbarek, nicknamed the "Black Pearl", who played for France in the pre-Independence era of the 1940s), it may have become the first African nation to reach the last 16 in a World Cup finals (in Mexico in 1986), but only now is it making real headway.

The game has only been professional in the country since 1996, when the Royal Moroccan Football Federation decided to make it so to help the national side. In 1997, the country qualified both for the following year's African Nation's Cup and France 98 without losing a qualifier in either competition. In 1998, Hadji flourished on the international stage, with a spectacular World Cup goal against Norway, and became a favourite with his club side in Spain, Deportivo La Coruna.

Salaheddine Bassir, a team-mate of Hadji's at both club and international level, consolidated his reputation as a striker with goals for Morocco in France (including two against Scotland) and Deportivo in Spain. Hassan Kachloul became the first Moroccan to play in England, for Southampton, and his sterling performances in a shaky outfit have already secured him a regular place in his national side. Football has become a passion, not because its local heroes can be slavishly tracked as they make it abroad ("Southampton? Kachloul is for Chelsea, no?" said one Essaouiran), but because anyone can do it and the country as a whole is doing it well.

Perhaps the green ball, because it was being carried by a tourist through the main square like an invitation for a match, held extra allure. A child of about 10 ran from behind and punched the ball from beneath my elbow. He was almost clean away before I managed a tackle amidst some tables to regain possession.

Only on the beach, later, did anyone actually ask to play with it. An impromptu match ensued at around 5.30 and continued until after 7.00, when the tide threatened to take away the goalposts and it became barely possible to see. "Hadjiiiiiiiiiiiii," shouted the lad who dribbled past the hapless tourist to make it 10-8 to the home team.

"Did Jimi Hendrix play football here?" I asked, to curtail his celebrations. "Probably," said the lad, barely visible in the haze, which was more green - through the reflection of the moon on the ball - than purple.

Nick Harris