Why are Barca taking helicopters to North African coast for Copa del Rey clash?
Jan 18, 2023
Sam MarsdenBarcelona correspondent
After winning the Spanish Supercopa in Saudi Arabia on Sunday, Barcelona are off to the continent of Africa on Thursday to resume their Copa del Rey campaign against a club run by a former “Big Brother” contestant.
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This is not another case of the Royal Spanish Football Federation [RFEF] taking the game on tour for cash, though, but a round-of-16 tie at AD Ceuta (stream LIVE Thursday, 2 p.m. ET on ESPN in the U.S.). After needing extra time to edge out third-division side Intercity 4-3 in the last round, Barca were handed a trip to Spain’s tiny territory of Ceuta, which borders Morocco on the northern coast of Africa.
“It’s a beautiful city, lodged between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, with four cultures that live in harmony,” former Barca and Tottenham Hotspur midfielder and Ceuta-born Mohamed Ali Amar, better known as Nayim, told ESPN.
Ceuta, with a population of around 85,000 people and an area of just 7 square miles, has been in Spain’s possession since 1580. However, Morocco does not officially recognise it as Spanish territory. That has led to flash points — as recently as 2021, when the Moroccan government loosened border controls — but Nayim says any diplomatic tension has not spilled into city life.
“It’s an example for society,” he said. “There are big Muslim and Christian communities and smaller Hebrew and Hindu communities. It’s a city where you all live together very peacefully and enjoy the Mediterranean gastronomy.”
Large swathes of the population have Moroccan roots from bygone generations, including Nayim. The city is closer to Tangier and Rabat than Madrid and Barcelona, which led to an interesting emotional tug-of-war when Morocco met at the World Cup in Qatar and stunned the world by winning the round-of-16 tie on penalties.
“I wasn’t in the city for the game, but it evoked a lot of passion,” added Nayim, who famously scored a stunning 119th-minute winner for Real Zaragoza against Arsenal in the 1995 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup final by lobbing goalkeeper David Seaman from 40 yards.
“[Morocco] proved they are not a small team and they got what they deserved. It was incredible how that [semifinal] run was experienced in Ceuta, but also across Morocco and in Spain, where there is a huge Moroccan population. They are passionate football people.
“And Ceuta is absolutely a football-crazy city. Some great players have come from there: Migueli who played for Barca [from 1973-88], Pirri spent many years at Real Madrid [1964-80] and is a legend there, Jose Bravo, the Lesmes brothers [Francisco and Rafael, the latter of whom won five European Cups with Real Madrid from 1955-60].
“So many players have played in the city. So many kids play football there. There are more and more scouts from the big [Spanish] clubs there because the structure is better and better all the time. There are youngsters now at Madrid and Villarreal. It’s a place that loves football.”
That love has not translated into results this season for the football club, which was founded in 1956 and has been part of the Spanish league system ever since. Ceuta sit bottom of Group 1 of the Primera RFEF — one of two regionalised third-tier leagues — with just two wins all season. Perhaps that is to be expected, though, when their division also features teams from as far away as Galicia, including fallen giants Deportivo La Coruna, who are a 12-hour drive away from Ceuta once you get to the Spanish mainland.
Barcelona is 13 hours away, although Xavi Hernandez’s side won’t be taking the bus. They plan to fly to Malaga, on Spain’s south coast, before taking helicopters over the Mediterranean and into Ceuta, which is a common way for visitors and residents to make the crossing.
It should be more comfortable journey than the team representing Melilla, another Spanish enclave in north Africa, had to take to get to Madrid in 2018. Melilla had to take a ferry, a bus and an airplane as part of an 11-hour journey through the night to the capital to face Real Madrid. They travelled having already lost the first leg at home 4-0, and a 6-1 defeat at the Bernabeu was their reward for the gruelling trip.
Away from their disastrous league form, the Copa del Rey has proved a welcome distraction for Ceuta, whose president Luhay Hamido was a contestant on Spain’s Big Brother back in 2003. They have beaten second-division Ibiza and LaLiga side Elche to make it this far. They hope to add 31-time winners Barca to that list at the 6,500-capacity Estadio Alfonso Murube on Thursday and may well use Xavi’s post-draw comments as extra motivation. The coach of the Catalan side said they had been “lucky” to be paired with the smallest team left in the competition.
Ceuta coach Jose Juan Romero hit back by saying: “He [Xavi] could have said it in another way. It hasn’t sat well with me, the club or anyone.
“We won’t go into the game to ask for shirts, we will go after them. Then, after the game, we will see who was lucky.”
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.