It is a little known fact that the only European nation to still maintain colonies in Africa is Spain. Long after France, Belgium, the UK, Portugal, Italy and Germany gave up their possessions on the continent, Spain continues to rule over two separate territories located in North Africa in 2018.
This piece of trivia probably remains outside of the layman’s consciousness thanks to the remarkably small size of these two possessions. It cannot be argued that either territory exists as a major country waiting for the apt moment to overthrow the dreaded European colonials. Both are essentially city-state enclaves located on Morocco’s Northern coast, neither big enough to realistically be viewed as a nation-in-waiting capable of standing on its own two feet economically. Ceuta and Melilla both boast populations of approximately 80,000 people, give or take. Both continue to depend on Spain economically and politically, and both form part of the autonomous community of Andalusia, Spain’s giant southern region.
On Thursday the 6th of December, the leading Football team of these tiny Spanish ports on the Moroccan coast travelled to Madrid to compete in the Copa del Rey against the single greatest pride of the capital. That’s right; scrappy and insignificant UD Melilla were drawn against the world’s most celebrated Football club, Real Madrid.
Melilla has been a possession of the Spanish crown since 1497. Though the initial conquest was relatively straightforward for the Spanish, maintaining control over the territory would become a bloody practice. Revolts against Spanish rule in Melilla in 1694 and in 1774 were suppressed, but after having lost its prized colonies of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines to the old-enemy-turned-NATO-bestie USA in 1898, Spain set about finding ways to build its imperial prestige once again. In 1904, the country annexed more land from its maritime neighbour across the Straits of Gibraltar. Morocco fought back, with rebellions against the Spanish led by organised militia groups from the Rif mountains. Between 1911 and 1926 some 25,000 Spanish soldiers were deployed to Melilla, and the death toll was exceedingly high for the Spanish; tens of thousands of lives were lost in the conflict. But the war of attrition was won; Spain has continued to rule Ceuta and Melilla ever since.
The vast majority of the locals are Spanish in every sense of the word, with Moroccans making up around 10% of the population (though a large volume of illegal immigrants are suspected). Strong fortifications separate Melilla and indeed Ceuta from Morocco itself, surely a reminder to Morocco of their nation’s defeat to Spain in the aforementioned wars. Inside these walls, the notable Andalusian character of the towns is remarkable; inhabitants share more culturally with Spain than they do with Morocco.
As it stands, while Ceuta is of military significance, the main industry of these two possessions is fishing. This is of little use to Spain, a country with an enormous coastline. As such, Ceuta and Melilla very much look to the mainland both culturally and economically for support, both unprepared to be considered Moroccan. Therefore while our understanding of European colonialism in Africa prompts us to imagine inhabitants of the last remaining European possessions there to be urgent to declare independence, Ceuta and Melilla look to Madrid with loving eyes. It is of little surprise therefore that travelling fans of UD Melilla to the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu were peaceful and enthusiastic about the away tie. Many had willingly purchased tickets for the home sections of the stadium.
Two of us were in town for the event (only one of us having seen Real compete before), which happened to take place on a Spanish bank holiday. We had anticipated a low turnout for such an insignificant fixture and had checked the prices ahead of the event, with €18 likely to be the cheapest seat available. As we arrived at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium however, it was clear that many had had the same idea as us, and the friendly kick-off time of 4:15 facilitated the attendance of presumably many fans coming in from longer distances. As we waited in the queue, several “skelpers” tried to flog their tickets. We gambled; the prices for 2 seats according to these guys were low enough to be worth the risk if they turned out to be fake. Yet their word came through. I smiled as the scanner flashed green and buzzed me through.
We paid €10 per ticket to watch Real Madrid play. Quite frankly, I should be in charge of the Brexit negotiations with the European leaders.
The match was of course one sided. Real ran out as 6-1 victors, a single penalty serving as a consolation for the travelling Melilla fans. Real Madrid won the Copa del Rey tie 10-1 on aggregate, a much needed goal haul and confidence boost for players and fans alike as the club struggles through the first half of the 2018/19 La Liga season.
Interestingly, to our right and above us stood a mob of home fans wearing dark coloured sports fashion gear. Surrounded by stewards, they extended their right arms on several occasions and chanted aggressively throughout, often directing their energy toward the block where the contemporary “Ultras” of Real Madrid are located. We eventually identified this group as the Ultras Sur; a banned Ultra group of Europe’s most successful club who internalise far-right political views. Members of Ultras Sur are known to the Real Madrid management and under normal circumstances are not permitted to enter the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on matchday. This however being a fairly uncontroversial and unimportant fixture, we assume that the club allowed the group to return to the terraces for the day. They did their best to make the most of the occasion. But, so did the Melilla fans, who were scattered around the ground.
From the perspective of two young men who are passionate about exploring the world and its people through the medium of Football, it is somehow satisfying to have been present at the meeting of the Football team of Spain’s last remaining colony in Africa, and the iconic club of the capital city that continues to rule over the inhabitants of that same colony. And all for the price of €10.