Posted: Fri December 20, 2013 9:58AM; Updated: Fri December 20, 2013 10:04AM

Raja Casablanca relishing underdog run to Club World Cup final

By James Young, Special to SI.com

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Raja Casablanca
Raja Casablanca's Issam Eerraki, left, and teammate Zakaria El Hachimi celebrate after stunning Atletico Mineiro in the FIFA Club World Cup semifinals.
Matthias Schrader/AP

MARRAKECH, Morocco -- They say foreign tourists and locals are treated differently by the authorities in Morocco, and it certainly seemed so on the long trudge to the Stade de Marrakech before the Club World Cup semifinal between Raja Casablanca and Atletico Mineiro. As grim-faced police aggressively swatted ticketless Moroccan kids aside at the beginning of the official exclusion zone, miles from the stadium, visiting Atletico fans were ushered through with obsequious smiles.

It was the same story after the game, in which underdog Raja defeated Atletico, and its iconic Brazilian Ronaldinho, by a stunning 3-1 scoreline. The buses taking local fans back into the center of town were dilapidated and unlit (though filled with a gleeful cacophony of thumping and chanting), while those reserved for the Galo (Atletico's nickname) supporters were bright, modern and funereally quiet.

The young Moroccan boy banging at the doors of the last visiting fans' bus to leave was unperturbed by such social divisions. He had been working at the game as a steward, and as he brandished his FIFA nametag like it was an FBI badge, the driver reluctantly let him and his three friends scramble aboard. There were sniffs of displeasure from the Atletico fans, who, given the expense of the trip and Brazilian football's current unseemly march towards gentrification, were mostly drawn from the wealthier sectors of their country's society.

"Jouer, jouer, Raja jouer!" the Moroccans started to sing lustily. "Play up, Raja, play up!" The sniffs of displeasure grew louder, though the locals cared not a jot.

It is not just supporters' buses that Raja Casablanca has been gate-crashing. The Club World Cup generally climaxes in an inevitable clash between the champions of South America (Atletico this year) and Europe (Bayern Munich) with the best of the remaining FIFA confederations (Auckland City, Guangzhou Evergrande, Al Ahly and Monterrey) plus the title holder from the host country (Raja) mere cannon fodder.

Now in its 10th edition, the Club World Cup has only once before not ended in a South America vs. Europe showdown, when 2010 African representative Mazembe shocked Internacional of Brazil in the semifinal before losing to Inter Milan in the title game.

This hardly comes as a great surprise, considering the financial clout and global predominance of the UEFA Champions League, South America's reputation as a prodigious producer of natural talent and the footballing pedigree and tradition of both continents. Then there is the skewed structure of the tournament, designed to make the life of the European champions as comfortable as possible -- whereas a potential winner from Oceania (for example) would have to play four games before lifting the trophy, its tonier rival from Germany, Spain et al enter already in the semifinals.

That makes Raja Casablanca's run to the final all the more remarkable. Raja is the "people's team" in Morocco, a club identified with the country's Islamic tradition and its struggle for independence during the French Protectorate. Perhaps as a result, Raja possesses a huge fan base not only in Casablanca, but also in the country's other major cities such as Marrakech, Rabat and Agadir.

Nonetheless, even the most popular team in a country like Morocco is small fry compared to the European or South American giants, with one website estimating that the Bayern squad is worth 50 times that of the total value of Raja's players. And prior to the competition it seemed like just being there might be thrill enough.

"Everyone is really proud that we're taking part. It will be the first time for all the guys," gushed captain and idol Mohsine Moutaouali.

Ronaldinho
Raja Casablanca overcame Ronaldinho's free kick but now must face Bayern Munich in the CWC final.
Matthias Schrader/AP

Hopes were not raised much by Raja's opening game against Auckland City, arguably the weakest team in the tournament. Although the Moroccans created the lion's share of the chances in a scrappy game in Agadir, the blunder in the Raja defense that led to Auckland's second-half equalizer, after Mouhssine Iajour had opened the scoring, made one fear for what might happen when the locals came up against a stronger side later in the tournament. Nevertheless, Raja sneaked through with a winner from Abdelilah Hafidi deep into injury time that sent the green-and-white-clad hordes in the stands into a frenzy.

That brought up the much more formidable Monterrey, three-time running winner of the CONCACAF Champions League, in the next round. Raja would surely be no match for the Mexican side, which boasts players of the pedigree of Chilean international Humberto Suazo. Despite Monterrey creating the better chances, though, Raja, relying on the pace of its diminutive forwards and the probing of Moutaouali, were able to absorb the pressure. After 90 tense minutes the score stood at 1-1, before Ivory Coast defensive midfielder Kouko Guehi leapt to head a dramatic winner in extra time.

The bandwagon was now officially rolling and it felt like most of Morocco was cheering on Raja. And the excitement was only added to by the identity of the club's semifinal opponent.

While the love that football fans in African and Asia have for the game runs as deep as that of their European or South American counterparts, it often has a different feel to it. Perhaps it is because of the experience of watching so much European football on TV, or the hardship of life in general, but the sense of obligation that makes British or German supporters trudge to the ground week-in, week-out, regardless of the quality of the spectacle on show, is replaced in places like Morocco by a more innocent rapture at the magic produced by the game's true artists -- the Messis, the Ronaldos and, of course, the Ronaldinhos.

"Hey, Ronaldinho! Ronaldinho, yes?" called market traders to passing Brazilian fans in the streets of Marrakech in the days leading up to Wednesday's match. It was Ronaldinho's name that was heard most often in the city's tea houses and cafes, and was shouted from the backs of the scooters and flat-bed trucks that carried the Raja fans to the game.

And it was "bye bye Ronaldinho" that the delirious Raja hordes howled at the Galo fans after Atletico was remarkably brushed aside with three goals from sweeping counter-attacks. Ronaldinho may have scored the lone Galo goal with a terrific free kick, but he and his teammates were sluggish and complacent throughout, unable to contain Raja's enthusiasm and pace. To add insult to injury, the idol was swamped by opposition players at the final whistle, anxious to grab a souvenir (from cleats to shin guards) or just a hug from the great man.

He took it well enough, and the goodwill was reflected in the stands, where even the surliest Galo supporter found it hard not to smile after being embraced and applauded by grinning Raja fans on their way to the exits.

Next up for Raja is Bayern Munich in Saturday's final, and although the heart will cheer for the local heroes, the head says that Bayern will surely prove too strong. But even if Raja loses, the team will be able to look back with pride at its remarkable run to the final, which has brought life to an often staid tournament.

"This is not just about Raja, or any city in particular, this is about Morocco as a whole," said Kouko Guehi. And his team and its rowdy fans have shown that the sounds, color and spirit of a nation can still find space in the sterilized world of modern global football tournaments.

James Young is a Brazil-based contributor to SI.com. He can be followed on Twitter @seeadarkness.

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