MLSsoccer.com's "Under African Skies" series is a look at what the first World Cup held on the African continent means to Major League Soccer's African players. We continue with Mehdi Ballouchy of the Colorado Rapids, who hails from Morocco.
Mehdi Ballouchy’s birthplace of Casablanca is about as far from Johannesburg as one can go and still be in Africa. That’s roughly 4,750 miles, about 400 less than the long-distance trip from the Moroccan city to Ballouchy’s new home in Denver.
But the first World Cup in Africa resonates well beyond national borders for all the continent’s native sons. And for Ballouchy – who emigrated from Morocco to Colorado as a teenager – it’s a chance perhaps for the world to see that soccer truly is the world’s game, regardless of where it’s played.
“Much depends on this one,” Ballouchy said. “Soccer is for everybody. More poor people watch it than rich ones, and I like the idea of it going around the world.”
Morocco’s ties to the World Cup run deep, even though they’ve failed to qualify since an early exit in 1998. They were the first African nation to ever win a group in 1986, and they lobbied unsuccessfully to host the event in 1994, 1998 and 2010.
“South Africa had the big advantage; the votes were lopsided in favor of South Africa,” Ballouchy said. “But I am happy it’s there. We were just long shots before.”
Ballouchy played at the national youth level with Morocco before leaving for the U.S. He’s now pursuing his American citizenship, but in this tournament his heart invariably lies with Algeria, Morocco’s larger neighbor to the east.
The Algerians topped Egypt in a playoff game in November in Khartoum, Sudan, earning their first bid since 1986.
“Ethnically, I feel more connected to them and I was supporting them in their playoff against Egypt,” Ballouchy said. “That was a huge, huge deal for all of Africa that they played in a neutral country and finally pulled it off.”
Ballouchy’s faith in Algeria invariably brings up a conflict of interests when it comes to their June 23 matchup against the U.S. in Pretoria. Ballouchy is a close friend of former Rapids forward Herculez Gomez, who was named to Bob Bradley’s 23-man roster.
“Better keep quiet on that one,” Ballouchy said.
He knows Algeria has no realistic chance of winning the World Cup, but warned the U.S. not to take the Desert Foxes (or Les Fennecs, in French) lightly.
“England has the quality in that group and should win the group, but the U.S. should be very careful of Algeria,” he said. “They are natural born fighters.”
The bigger issue for Ballouchy and his fellow Africa natives, however, is the implications of finally hosting the Cup on a continent that has struggled for FIFA’s recognition and respect for some time.
“FIFA had been saying it would happen for years and years and now they are finally trusting Africa to stage the World Cup,” he said. “Just the fact that they are going to have a World Cup in Africa proves it has come a long way.”