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Rabat: The decades-old rivalry between North African neighbors Morocco and Algeria has spilled over onto the football pitch, with the Moroccan team excluded from the African Nations Championship (CHAN).

The Atlas Lions under-23 team, winners of the last two CHAN tournaments, withdrew Friday as host country Algeria refused to allow direct flights from Rabat.

Algiers closed its airspace to all flights to Morocco in September 2021, one month after the severance of diplomatic ties. CHAN organizers said the team may have made an indirect flight.

Fouzi Lekjaa, president of Morocco’s FRMF football federation, said, “It is a real shame that the Moroccan national team, which has been preparing seriously for six months to join CHAN and defend its title, has been robbed of its chance.”

The team left Rabat-Salé airport on Friday afternoon after waiting hours for the green light to take off for the Algerian city of Constantine, according to an AFP photographer.

Players and staff boarded the bus and left the airport, where they had been waiting since early morning.

Algeria’s organizing committee said last week that organizers were under no obligation to have players arrive by direct flight, Moroccan news website Hespress reported.

According to Hespress, the chairman of the commission, Rashid Oukari, pointed out that most other teams would probably make layovers along the way.

Algeria cut diplomatic ties with Morocco in August 2021, accusing it of spying on government officials, citing “hostile acts” by the kingdom.

The two countries are embroiled in fierce competition over the disputed region of Western Sahara, where the Algerian-backed Polisario movement is calling for a referendum on independence.

In 2020, the US recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over the territory in return for re-establishing ties with Israel. This is the chagrin of Algiers, who for decades has been seen as North Africa’s leading defender of the Palestinian cause.

“Sovereign Matter”

The Moroccan Football Federation said on Thursday it was informed last month by the Confederation of African Football (CAF) that Algeria had issued “authorization in principle” for direct flights from Rabat to Constantine.

However, the FRMF added that the flight had not been confirmed, and announced that it would cancel its participation in CHAN.

Morocco’s foreign ministry said later on Thursday that the team would actually be traveling, which would lead to lengthy waits at airports.

Algeria has not confirmed whether it has approved the flight.

As the Moroccan team waited in Rabat, Gianni Infantino and Patrice Motsepe, heads of world governing bodies FIFA and CAF respectively, arrived from Algeria to attend the opening of the new stadium.

Motsepe said he was “sad” the team couldn’t travel for the tournament.

“I want these boys to represent the people of Morocco and the people of Africa,” he said at the airport.

“I’ve been doing the best I can these last few days,” he added.

Algerian officials said they were investigating, but “they said it was a sovereignty issue,” Motsepe said.

While in Rabat, the CAF and FIFA chiefs also attended the FIFA Club World Cup draw, which kicks off in Morocco on 1 February.

Morocco made history last month by becoming the first African or Arab team to reach the semi-finals of the World Cup. Morocco-Algeria quarrel spills over into football after Africa Cup withdrawal

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