Second football game called off in Morocco map row

An RS Berkane kit with a map of Morocco which includes the disputed territory of Western Sahara
The map of Morocco at the centre of the row includes the disputed territory of Western Sahara [Getty Images]

A row over a map of Morocco displayed on a football shirt deepened as the second leg of the Caf Confederation Cup semi-final between RS Berkane and USM Alger was called off on Sunday.

USM Alger refused to take to the pitch in Morocco because the strip the hosts were wearing showed a map of the country which included the disputed territory of Western Sahara.

Algeria, which cut off diplomatic ties with its North African neighbour in 2021, sees the extended map as a political provocation.

Morocco laid claim to Western Sahara in 1957, when it was still under Spanish colonial rule, and then annexed the territory in 1975.

The first leg on Sunday, 21 April had also been cancelled after Berkane had their kit confiscated by customs officials on arrival in Algeria and refused to wear an alternative shirt.

A Confederation of African Football (Caf) committee punished USM Alger with a 3-0 defeat in the first leg, and a different board then dismissed an appeal on Friday.

Neither decision was explained in detail, and USM Alger could face further sanctions from the continent's governing body.

Algeria's football federation (Faf) is expected to launch an appeal at the Court of Arbitration for Sport, with its case centred on the argument that Berkane's kit breaches Fifa's equipment regulations.

The world governing body states that no item of kit which "includes political statements or images" may be worn.

USM Alger, who are the holders of the Confederation Cup, travelled to north-east Morocco for the return leg but did not emerge from their dressing room for kick-off.

Caf has not yet commented on the latest incident, but Berkane are expected to progress to the final where Egyptian giants Zamalek await.

Berkane have used the same jersey throughout this season's competition - as well as a similar design in previous continental campaigns.

The club won the Confederation Cup, which was the second-tier continental competition before the introduction of the Africa Football League, in 2020 and 2022.

Map dispute adds to political tensions

RS Berkane stand on the pitch as they wait for the USM Alger team before the second leg of their Caf Confederation Cup football semi-final match
RS Berkane took to the pitch for the second leg of the semi-final tie on Sunday but USM Alger did not emerge from their dressing room [Getty Images]

Algeria and Morocco share a nearly 2,000 km (1,242 miles) border, which has been a source of tension since independence from French colonial rule.

The border is currently closed between the countries and Algeria severed diplomatic ties three years ago, accusing Morocco of "hostile acts". Morocco called the move "completely unjustified".

The ongoing political spat caused Morocco to pull out of last year's African Nations Championship, which was hosted in Algeria, after being denied permission to fly direct from Rabat.

Morocco were not sanctioned by Caf despite withdrawing just days before the tournament was due to kick off.

The extended map of Morocco which is on RS Berkane's kit has also caused issues in other sports.

Algeria withdrew from the Arab Youth Handball Championship this month because the Moroccan side were “wearing shirts with political connotations".

Western Sahara, which is sparsely populated but with phosphate reserves and rich fishing grounds, has been the subject of a long-running dispute between Morocco and its indigenous Sahrawi people, led by the Polisario Front.

After Morocco annexed the territory in 1975 the Polisario Front declared the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, with a government in exile in Algeria, in 1976.

A 16-year-long insurgency ended with a UN-brokered truce in 1991.

Morocco controls about 80% of the territory, with the rest being controlled by Polisario.

In 2020, the United States announced it would recognise full Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in exchange for Morocco establishing relations with Israel.

Algerian hopes lie with appeal to Cas

Fans of RS Berkane hold banners before the second leg of the Caf Confederation Cup football semi-final match against Algeria's USM Alger
Berkane supporters displayed a banner included the extended map of Morocco in the stands at the stadium ahead of the second leg [Getty Images]

Analysis by BBC Arabic's Abdelali Ragad

The Algerian football federation has decided that a shirt displaying the extended map of Morocco amounts to the politicisation of sport.

For Algeria the map is fictitious, unsupported legally and contrary to Fifa’s equipment regulations.

That statement was enough to conclude that USM Alger, who have received support from across the country, would not play the second leg on Sunday - and that is exactly what happened.

A widely-held view among former players and media in Algeria is that Morocco holds significant influence and power within Caf, especially with the presence of Fouzi Lekjaa on its executive committee.

Lekjaa, in addition to heading the Royal Moroccan Football Federation, is a minister in the Moroccan government and a former president of RS Berkane.

This is why Faf has gone to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne.

If their appeal is rejected by the court in Switzerland, the results could be catastrophic for Algerian football.