A Spanish Team Endures on a Toehold in Africa

A Spanish Team Endures on a Toehold in Africa

CEUTA, Spain — From the top of Alfonso Murube Stadium, you can see the peninsula of Ceuta stretching out into the Mediterranean Sea. Out on the water, ferries shuttle back and forth across the narrow Strait of Gibraltar to the coastline of southern Spain, just 30 short minutes away. Walk half an hour in the opposite direction and you get a very different view: two 20-foot fences topped with razor wire that mark the border with Morocco.

Ceuta, a sliver of land seven square miles in size, hangs on to the edge of Africa, as thin as a toenail. But it is not part of Africa, not officially. This is Spanish soil. Ceuta, and the nearby city of Melilla, are the only two cities on the African mainland that are officially part of Europe, a quirk of political geography that also makes them the only land borders between Africa and the European Union. That status is why, every year, thousands of migrants approach Ceuta’s walls and wire fences, and try to scale them or swim around them, in hopes of getting one step closer to Europe itself. Hundreds have died trying.

Ceuta’s location, though, is not the only feature that sets it apart. It is a rarity for Spain, too, as a city where the Muslim and Christian populations are of similar size. It has significant Jewish and Hindu minorities. Darija, an Arabic dialect, is widely spoken among its 85,000 residents, and depending on the time of day both the call to prayer and church bells can be heard in the quiet, narrow streets around Murube Stadium.

Except on match days, that is, when those sounds give way to the clamor of the drums, songs and chants of the fans of Agrupación Deportiva Ceuta F.C.

A.D. Ceuta is one of only two European soccer teams based in Africa, a distinction that is both a point of civic pride and a unifying force in this complex cultural intersection. “Ceuta is a city where four cultures coexist,” said Adrian Suarez, a leader of Ceuta’s loudest ultra group, Grada Sur. His group includes an equal number of Christians and Muslims, he said before a recent match in Spain’s third tier against Fuenlabrada, from Madrid. But in the bleachers, “No one is more than anyone else, nor anyone less than anyone else.”

Ceuta’s team embraces that diversity, playing in jerseys bearing a small row of religious symbols on the chest: the Christian cross, the Islamic crescent, Hinduism’s Om symbol and the Star of David.

“Our city only appears in the news for bad things,” said Javier Moreno, a lawyer for the club. “For us to be here is not only football. This club belongs to the people of Ceuta, and is also the image of Ceuta in Spain.”

At the start of the 20th century Spain held a long slice of North Africa’s coastline, known then as the Spanish protectorate of Morocco. The territory included Ceuta, known as Sebtah in Arabic, but also Tétouan, a larger port city to its south, and Melilla.

When Morocco declared independence from France in 1956, Spain relinquished its protectorate. But it kept Ceuta and Melilla, withdrawing into two, tiny toeholds on the continent. The Spanish administrators of the protectorate’s most successful soccer club decided to hold on to that, too.

That team, Atlético de Tetuán, remains the only team from mainland Africa to play in La Liga, Spain’s top division. But in 1956 its officials took much of its history and archive to Ceuta, where the team merged with a local club. A.D. Ceuta F.C. is what remains after years of financial crises, mergers and name changes. For the fans and the city it remains Atlético de Tetuán’s historical heir, even if the Spanish authorities consider it an entirely new club.

In Morocco, what remained of the club there became Moghreb Athlétic de Tétouan, which still uses a near identical club crest to the one worn since it was founded in 1922. It plays in Morocco’s first division, in the same stadium that Real Madrid and Barcelona visited in the early 1950s. Both it and Ceuta consider the single 1951-52 season in La Liga as part of their history.

A.D. Ceuta’s current era began in crisis in 2016. Facing bankruptcy, A.D. Ceuta turned to the most famous player ever to emerge from the city, the former Tottenham and Real Zaragoza midfielder Nayim, and another native son, the former reality television star Luhay Hamido, to save it. “At that point,” Hamido said, “the team was ready to disappear.”

The solution was that Hamido, a criminology and chemistry graduate who had returned to Ceuta after his father fell ill, would take charge of the finances, and that Nayim would oversee the playing side. For Nayim, 56, the attraction was intensely personal: While he now lives in Zaragoza, he had grown up attending Ceuta’s games with his father.

Going to matches in those days was an important communal act, he said, bringing together Muslims and Christians in a city where neighborhoods are still divided along religious lines. “It was our club,” he said. “The city’s club.”

Under its new leadership, the team renegotiated its debt and found its footing. The past five years have seen three promotions; it now plays in Spain’s third tier. Season ticket sales, which once numbered in the dozens, have grown to 2,500.

Challenges remain, however, and even success brings new costs. After the club’s most recent promotion, Ceuta’s regional government had to replace the team’s artificial pitch so it met the regulations of its new league. And unlike most of its rivals, it enters each season knowing that about 10 percent of the club’s annual budget of 2.5 million euros (about $2.7 million) will be eaten up by travel. There is no airport in Ceuta, so when the team played a match in Galicia, in northern Spain, recently, it had to make the 14-hour trip via ferry, plane and bus.

“We find it funny,” Hamido said, “that the teams complain when they come to Ceuta.”

The modern story of Ceuta, the place, is far more complex. As migration to Europe has increased, so has the pressure on Ceuta’s borders. The fences have risen higher and the border has hardened since the turn of the century, separating families and friends.

Nayim lamented how when he was younger he could drive 20 minutes to villages like Rincón, on the outskirts of Tétouan, to have tea with Moroccan friends. Now, it can take four hours just to cross the border.

“We have no problem with the people from Morocco, because our grandfathers are from that country,” Nayim said. Any problems, he contended, were not about people, or Ceuta. “It’s about the countries, between the governments.”

In 2021, more than 12,000 migrants entered Ceuta in two tense days, many waved across the border by Moroccan guards. The incident caused a serious political fight between Spain and Morocco. A year later, at least 23 people died when thousands of migrants stormed the fences that surround Melilla.

Those flashpoints are rare, but Ceuta has a low-level metronome of tragedy even during calmer times. A few days before the match against Fuenlabrada, the bodies of three Moroccans were found on a beach in Ceuta. At the Islamic cemetery on the outskirts of the city, lines of fresh graves rise up and across terraces cut into the hillside.

“There are more migrants now, definitely,” a grave digger named Yusuf said as he prepared the next row of graves with an earth mover. That morning, a young Yemeni who had drowned trying to swim around the border was buried in grave No. 4735. He was believed to be no older than 20, although no one was sure. His name most likely will never be known.

Those that do make it across the border find themselves stuck in limbo, prevented from reaching the European mainland but uninterested in returning to Africa. At a school in the center of Ceuta the day before the match, hundreds of migrants, activists and residents gathered to commemorate the ninth anniversary of the day that 15 migrants drowned as they approached Tarajal Beach.

The 300 or so protesters marched for four hours to reach the beach, next to the border wall with Morocco. White flowers symbolizing each of the dead men were thrown into the sea at the spot where their bodies were found. The waves rolled them straight back onto the sand.

Amid those grim realities, A.D. Ceuta’s season grinds on.

Before the Fuenlabrada match, a bad-tempered and high-stakes affair against a team just above Ceuta in the standings, the club’s most immediate concern was relegation. It sat at the bottom of the league. It had just fired its coach.

So there was unbridled joy around the stadium when a stunning free kick at the end of the first half gave Ceuta the lead, and more when the full-time whistle blew with that score line unchanged. Several fans invaded the field to take selfies with the team’s new Ghanaian midfielder, Ransford Selasi. The Grada Sur ultras chanted and banged their drums.

Survival now seems far more likely. After beating Fuenlabrada, Ceuta won six of its next 10 games. It has not lost in more than two months.

“I began reading Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes when I was young and realized that I wanted to solve riddles,” Hamido said of the task ahead to keep the club afloat. The larger riddle will be how to change his country’s view of his home city, to see it as more than a place where migrants gather, where the door to Europe occasionally buckles. That, he said, should be easier.

“I don’t just think we are an example for the rest of Spain,” he said. “I think we are an example for the rest of the world.”

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