Ceuta, Spain — From the top of the Alfonso Murbe stadium, you can see the Ceuta peninsula stretching into the Mediterranean Sea. By water, ferries traverse the narrow Strait of Gibraltar and reach Spain’s southern coastline in just 30 minutes. A 30-minute walk in the opposite direction reveals a completely different view. Razor wire covers two 20-foot fences marking the border with Morocco.
Ceuta is a small seven-square-mile piece of land that hangs as thin as a toenail over the edge of Africa. But it’s not official and it’s not part of Africa. This is Spanish soil. Ceuta and the nearby city of Melilla are the only her two cities on mainland Africa to be officially part of Europe, as well as the only border between Africa and the European Union, a quirk of political geography. That’s why thousands of migrants approach Ceuta’s walls and wire fences every year, hoping to climb, swim and get a step closer to Europe itself. Hundreds died.
However, Ceuta is not only about its location. A city with an equal population of Muslims and Christians is unusual even for Spain. There are significant minorities of Jews and Hindus. Darijah, a dialect of Arabic, is widely spoken among its 85,000 inhabitants, and depending on the time of day, both the call to prayer and church bells can be heard in the quiet, narrow streets around Murbe Stadium.
On non-matchdays, it’s when the din of drums, songs and chants of Agrupación Deportiva Ceuta FC’s fans takes over.
AD Ceuta is one of two European football teams based in Africa. It is both a source of civic pride and a sense of unity at this complex cultural crossroads. “Ceuta is a city where four cultures coexist,” says Adrian Suarez, leader of Ceuta’s loudest ultra group, Grada Sur. His group includes Christians and Muslims in equal numbers, he said before a recent game in Spain’s third division against Madrid’s Fuenlabrada. I am not better than anyone else, nor worse than anyone else.”
Ceuta’s team embraces its diversity, playing in jerseys lined with religious symbols across the chest, including the Christian cross, the Islamic crescent, the Hindu Om symbol and the Star of David. increase.
Javier Moreno, the club’s lawyer, said: “Our city only makes news about the bad things. “We are not only here for football. This club belongs to the people of Ceuta. Yes, and also the image of Ceuta in Spain.”
In the early 20th century, Spain held a long stretch of the North African coastline, then known as the Spanish Protectorate of Morocco. The territory included not only Ceuta, known in Arabic as Sebuta, but also the larger port cities of Tetouan and Melilla to the south.
When Morocco declared independence from France in 1956, Spain renounced its protectorate. However, it retained Ceuta and Melilla and withdrew to two smaller footholds on the continent.
That team, Atlético de Tetuan, is the only mainland African team to play in Spain’s top division, La Liga. But in 1956 the team took much of its history and archives to Ceuta, where it merged with the local club. AD Ceuta FC is what remains after years of financial crises, mergers and name changes. For fans and the city, it remains the historic heir to Atlético de Tetuan, even if the Spanish authorities consider it a completely new club.
In Morocco, the club that remained there became the Moghreb Athletic de Tetouan and still uses a club coat of arms nearly identical to the one worn since its creation in 1922. They play in the Moroccan first division, in the same stadium as Real Madrid and Barcelona. Visited in the early 1950’s. Both the team and Ceuta consider the 1951/52 season in La Liga a piece of history.
AD Ceuta’s current era began with the 2016 crisis.Faced with bankruptcy, his AD Ceuta with the most famous player to emerge from the city, a former Tottenham Real Zaragoza Midfielder Naim and the son of another native, former reality TV star Ruhai Hamid, saved it. “At that point, the team was ready to disappear,” Hamido said.
The solution was for Hamid, a criminology and chemistry graduate who had returned to Ceuta after his father fell ill, to take care of the finances and Naim to oversee the playing surface. For his 56-year-old Nayim, the appeal was very personal. He currently lives in Zaragoza but grew up attending Ceuta matches with his father.
At the time, going to the games was an important communal act, uniting Muslims and Christians, and being in a city where districts are still divided along religious lines, he said. “It was our club,” he said. “City Club”
Under new leadership, the team renegotiated their debts and found a footing. In the last five years he has had three promotions. Currently playing in the third tier of Spain. His ticket sales for the season, which used to be in the dozens, have grown to 2,500.
However, challenges remain, and even with success comes new costs. After the club’s latest promotion, Ceuta’s local government had to replace the team’s man-made pitch to comply with new league regulations. And unlike most of its rivals, it enters each season knowing that around 10% of the club’s €2.5 million (around $2.7 million) annual budget is spent on travel. Ceuta does not have an airport, so when the team recently played in Galicia in northern Spain, he had to travel 14 hours, using ferries, planes and buses.
“I don’t think it’s funny for teams to complain when they come to Ceuta,” said Hamid.
The modern story of the place, Ceuta, is much more complicated. As immigration to Europe increases, so does the pressure on Ceuta’s borders. Since the turn of the century, fences have gotten taller and borders tighter, separating family and friends.
Nayim lamented how, when he was young, villages like Rincón, on the outskirts of Tetouan, were a 20-minute drive away, where he could have tea with his Moroccan friends. Now it can take him four hours just to cross the border.
“Our grandfather is from Morocco, so we have no problem with Moroccan people,” said Naim. No matter, he insisted, was about people or Ceuta. “It’s a matter between countries, between governments.”
In 2021, more than 12,000 migrants entered Ceuta in two tense days, many waved across the border by Moroccan guards. The incident sparked a serious political struggle between Spain and Morocco. A year later, thousands of migrants stormed the fence surrounding Melilla, killing at least 23 people.
These flashpoints are rare, but Ceuta has a metronome of low-level tragedy even in its peaceful times. A few days before the Fuenlabrada match, his three Moroccan bodies were found on a beach in Ceuta. At the Islamic cemetery on the outskirts of town, rows of fresh tombs are lined up across terraces cut into the hillside.
“There are definitely more immigrants now,” said a gravedigger named Yusuf as he prepared the next row of graves with Earthmover. A young Yemeni man who drowned trying to swim across the border that morning was buried at tomb number 4735. His name will probably never be known.
Those who cross the border find themselves blocked from reaching mainland Europe, uninterested in returning to Africa and stuck. , activists and residents came together to mark the 9th anniversary of the 15 immigrants. drowned when they approached Tarajal beach.
About 300 protesters marched for four hours to reach a beach next to the border wall with Morocco. A white flower symbolizing each corpse was thrown into the sea where the bodies were found. The waves rolled them straight onto the sand.
Despite these harsh realities, AD Ceuta’s season is progressing steadily.
Before the Fuenlabrada match, a moody and high-stakes affair with a team just up in the Ceuta standings, the club’s most pressing concern was relegation. was bottom of the league. I had just fired my coach.
So when a spectacular free-kick gave Ceuta the lead at the end of the first half, there was tremendous joy around the stadium. Some fans stormed onto the field to take a selfie with the team’s new Ghanaian midfielder, Lunsford Selasi, as Grada his Sur his Ultras chanted and beat the drums.
Survival seems much more likely. After defeating Fuenlabrada, Ceuta won six of his next ten games. I haven’t lost in over two months.
“I started reading Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes when I was younger and wanted to solve riddles,” Hamid said of the upcoming challenges of keeping the club alive. The bigger mystery will be how he will change his country’s view of his native city to see it as more than a gathering place for immigrants whose doors to Europe are sometimes closed. He said it should be easier.
“I don’t think we are a model for the rest of Spain,” he said. “I think we are a role model for the world.”