Morocco, home of the Atlas Lions and a country where soccer dreams are played out daily in the streets and fields by youth across the country. In March and April of this year, I decided to volunteer abroad by teaching football and English in Morocco. This is an experience I wish to share and I hope to inspire others to take their own journey, help out and learn.
A sharp introduction
I travelled from Australia for 24 hours to arrive in Rabat. Rabat is the capital of Morocco and Medina (the town I was based) is the ‘old walled town’ built centuries ago with very narrow roads suitable only for feet, hooves, or more contemporarily, scooters. This was culture shock #1.
To reach my accomodation, I had to carry my bags through the kilometre long winding streets of the Medina, which was bursting full of people and produce. I felt like Hansel and Gretel, I used whatever means available to remember the path I took into the urban maze. “Turn left at the Mosque” was the careful advice the local staff gave me. If there is any notable landmarks in Morocco, I quickly learned that Mosques are usually the best.
Once I had made it to my homestay, I was pleasantly introduced to the household’s mother, her daughters and their husbands, who all lived under the one roof. Immediately I felt a little self-conscious as my suitcase full of clothes (and emergency back-up clothes) occupied half of their living room. Oh boy did I feel a little too lavish. I was humbled by the size of their house and in the coming weeks I was astonished by how efficient they were in the use of space, heating and power.
To my delight, lunch was immediately served upon my arrival via a large steaming tagine on a small square table for seating of 8 people. The inviting smell of pot roasted chicken, potatoes, zucchini and an abundance of herbs opened the creases in my stomach with delight. As is custom in Morocco, our meal was to be eaten by hand: right hand only. Culture Shock #2. Yet, I could not think of a better way to share your food and have the most intimate introduction to my new family (and it was delicious too!).
Volunteer soccer coaching
The next day was my initiation into the Moroccan football culture and introduction to the children I’d be coaching. As I quickly learned, both had equal parts high passion and great skill.
My volunteeer placement for soccer coaching was on the outskirts of Rabat at (what I found to be all over the city) a caged, 3/4 sized astro-turf pitch. This type of soccer field was prevalent throughout the urban landscape of Morocco and led to my first observation: Observation #1: anyone seeking a game of soccer had abundant access to a pitch / field with goals, lines and fences. The infrastructure of football was strong in Morocco.
Once the coaching begun, I observed one immediate difference with the Moroccan kids in their style of play vs the Australian kids I have coached over the past few seasons: they possessed a flair for direct attack. Observation #2: Moroccan kids first soccer instinct is to directly take on their opponent. In comparison to the kids I was use to coaching, they have superior ball handling skills, and they exercise a style of play that leads to one-on-one match ups all over the pitch. A distinct difference to the pass and move (dare I say conservative?) soccer style encouraged during my own football development.
It isn’t all bad for Australian kids, when I changed up the activities away from soccer, they have an advantage over their Moroccan counterparts: the ability to catch. I think of the countless backyards, schoolyards, even park benches where Aussies kids can been seen casually passing a rugby ball, a basketball, a tennis ball. These types of activities are not so common in Morocco. It’s all ball at the feet!
Yet, I found there are some universal traits that all footballers share. When a Moroccan team member was free to receive a pass, they would cry out “Hey, Hey!”, which echoed around the park. This is a distinct call out I’ve heard in my pick up games from parks in Pyrmont, Australia, to the fields in the south of France. Observation #3: the international call for ‘pass it to me’ is HEY. I have often wondered how soccer players who play for foreign clubs communicate with their team mates. . . and now I know.
Another thing that remains universal is the attraction of star players and their team shirts. My observation on ground in Morocco was the Cristiano Ronaldo Juventus shirts only slightly outnumbered Lionel Messi Barcelona shirts, with the rich red of the Atlas Lions (Moroccan national team shirt) coming in a distant third.
My last experience was made on my road trip to the Anti Atlas Mountains in the south of the country. For those of you unfamiliar with the Anti Atlas, it’s best described as the images you’ve seen from the Mars rover. It’s rocky. It’s hard. It’s barren. It’s red. Yet, in this Mars like environment, the Moroccan’s still find soccer and to me, this is amazing.
To play football in these trying conditions is not only brave, but also requires meticulous preparation. Having to remove all the rocks that are over the size of your thumb from the entire football pitch. This in turn leaves nothing but smaller rocks as your playing surface. Nothing but rocks to play on. But they still play and pursue their passion. In my time in Morocco, I encountered dozens of these rock pitches during my road trip through the Anti Atlas to the Sahara desert and it was nothing short of inspiring. Observation #4: whatever the circumstances you can always find a soccer game.
Volunteer soccer coaching anywhere is a rewarding experience. Coaching kids in a foreign country is an eye opening and culturally rewarding experience for all. What I learnt when in Morocco was that very few Moroccans get the opportunity to travel internationally (there are many hoops and restrictions for foreign travel). Therefore, your visit to their homeland is welcomed with open arms and it is their own glimpse of the outside world. By volunteering in Morocco I have benefitted from vast perspective and new respect. I’d do it again and I’d recommend to anyone to do the same!