x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Charity match brings stars to Africa

Held in Morrocco this year, the match raises money for UN projects that help aid poor countries.

Zinedine Zidane, left, of France and Pere Marti of Spain battle for the ball during the
Zinedine Zidane, left, of France and Pere Marti of Spain battle for the ball during the "Match Against Poverty".

FEZ, MOROCCO // Their houses are crumbling and their pockets empty, but only one word was on the lips of the boys and young men gathered on Monday afternoon at a ragged football pitch in Aouinate el Hejaz, a down-at-the-heel neighbourhood on the outskirts of Fez: Zidane! On Monday evening Zinedine Zidane, the French footballer, and Ronaldo, the Brazilian star, faced off at Fez's stadium in their sixth annual friendly match to raise money for UN development projects in more than two dozen poor countries, including Morocco.

Those countries may soon get poorer as the financial crisis battering Europe and North America ripples out to African countries reliant on foreign aid and capital, said Shanta Devarajan, the chief economist for Africa at the World Bank. Africa stands to lose income as its northern neighbours have less to spend on the continent's goods, and the US$12 billion (Dh44bn) normally sent home each year by African migrants could start drying up, Mr Devarajan said. About 200 million Africans rely on foreign aid for HIV treatment, Mr Devarajan said. "If there are cutbacks, it's a matter of life and death for those people."

The leaders of the world's economic powers gathered in Washington for a summit on how to kick- start the flagging world economy last weekend, vowing to be more vigilant for looming crises but offering little in the way of concrete action. The group will meet again in the spring, after Barack Obama, the US president-elect, will have taken office. Meanwhile, poorer countries have to find other ways to raise standards of living. Even in countries such as Morocco that have enjoyed quick economic growth, new wealth has not always created enough new jobs for a growing population. Flocks of European tourists have descended on Fez, a former imperial capital with labyrinthine souqs and the Arab world's oldest university, since budget airlines zeroed in on the city a few years ago. The new prosperity shows in an abundance of hotels, many of them renovated raids, traditional grand houses with fountains burbling in central courtyards. But deep poverty remains beneath the surface, corresponding to an official unemployment rate of 14 per cent in the cities.

Destitute children haunt the cafe terraces of Fez, begging for the food on diners' plates. At the football pitch in Aouinate el Hejaz, idle youths pass the afternoons kicking footballs in the shadow of half-built housing blocks. That is where initiatives such as Monday's football match come in. With Ronaldo and Zidane topping the bill, last year's match took in $759,000. The money goes toward improving education and health standards and creating employment in developing countries. The project in Morocco is to build sport centres in poor neighbourhoods. "Ronaldo is from Brazil, I'm from a working-class quarter of Marseille," Zidane, whose parents immigrated to France from Algeria, said at a press conference before Monday's game. "We don't forget where we come from, and we've joined in a good cause." At the football pitch in Aouinate el Hejaz, the amateur footballers said they are not looking primarily for Zidane to solve their problems. What they value most is his inspiration. "All the kids here dream of playing football, but they have to work to support their parents," said Amer Moussaoui, 26. Mr Moussaoui is no exception. With a mother widowed by his father's death 20 years ago, Mr Moussaoui works six days a week as a parking attendant. On the seventh day he comes to the football pitch, where he plays midfield. Mr Moussaoui said he planned to go to Monday's game. But with ticket prices running as much as $100, it is unlikely he made it. A line of police, truncheons dangling from their hips, deployed themselves between the stadium gates and about 1,000 boys and young men who had come despite not being able to afford tickets. Some grumbled that, save for a lucky few who received free tickets, the poor of Fez could not attend a match played on their behalf. But others were more sanguine. "I'm here to catch a glimpse of Zidane," said Fouad Amari, 25, a tailor from Aouinate el Hejaz. "He's a great footballer, and for us Moroccans his North African roots make him special." Inside the stadium, about 15,000 spectators cheered at Zidane's entrance, cheered whenever he touched the ball and cheered even when he decided to leave early during the middle of the second half of the match. Despite his French birth and nationality, many North Africans accord Zidane the special honour of a local boy made good. "Zidane is a normal guy like any of us," Mr Moussaoui said. "Except that he plays beautiful football." jthorne@thenational.ae