Former AC Milan star George Weah’s inauguration as President of Liberia represents a positive association for the club. Weah played there when he won his FIFA Player of the Year award in 1995. The same can’t be said for its involvement in Morocco, where the Italian football club is helping to normalize a decades-long occupation.
In early December 2017, AC Milan announced that “passion for football and for AC Milan has now reached the sand dunes of the Sahara desert” with the launch of a new football academy. According to a club press release, the academy is based in the city of “Laayoune, in Morocco.” But the statement from the club makes no mention of the fact that Laayoune is actually the largest city in Western Sahara, a territory that has been occupied by Morocco for decades.
Previously a Spanish colony, the majority of Western Sahara has been controlled by Morocco since a bitter war with the Polisario Front, the resistance movement of the indigenous Saharawi population, ended in a 1991 ceasefire. Saharawi control the rest of the territory in the form of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). With the support of powerful allies such as France and the United States, Morocco has been able to successfully ignore a 1975 International Court of Justice (ICJ) opinion that denied its claim to sovereignty over the territory and prevent the holding of a long-promised referendum on self-determination. The issue attracts little international attention, and the move by AC Milan is another sign of how the status quo has become increasingly entrenched.
By opening an academy in Laayoune, and explicitly referring to it as part of Morocco, AC Milan is helping to whitewash the Moroccan occupation. The press release notes that the project was “strongly welcomed” by Laayoune’s mayor Hamdi Ould Errachid, ostensibly due to its contribution to his goal of encouraging participation in sports, particularly football. But more importantly, this is a propaganda victory for Morocco, which will no doubt be delighted at having one of world’s most well-known football clubs set up an academy in the city, lending an air of legitimacy and normality to the occupation.
AC Milan is not alone, among footballers or institutions, in legitimizing Morocco’s occupation. Diego Maradona, arguably the greatest footballer ever, is among a group of former stars that have been willing apologists for the occupation. Maradona and others including Egypt’s Mohamed Aboutrika (who has publicly called out Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land), Brazil’s Rivaldo, Ghana’s Abedi Pele, and Liberia’s Weah took part in a gala match in Laayoune in late 2016 (as well a similar match in 2015) to mark the anniversary of the so-called “Green March,” in which hundreds of thousands of Moroccans crossed into Western Sahara in 1975. The event, an occasion to celebrate for Moroccans, is for the Saharawi a painful reminder of the invasion and partial occupation of their homeland, which led to forced exile for many and the ongoing stalemate in the struggle for control of the territory.
Mohamed Mayara, a Saharawi journalist and human rights activist based in the occupied territories, expressed frustration at the move by AC Milan and the wording of its press release, noting that it contradicts international law regarding the status of Western Sahara. In addition to the ICJ opinion, Mayara also highlighted the 2002 opinion of Hans Corell, the United Nations Legal Counsel, reiterating the status of Western Sahara as a non-self-governing territory requiring self-determination, and the European Court of Justice ruling in 2016 that Western Sahara is not part of Morocco.
The launch of the academy also comes in the wake of Morocco’s decision to join the contest to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup, where it will be competing against the joint bid of Canada, Mexico, and the United States. The high-profile bid, and indeed hosting the tournament itself should Morocco be successful, offers a significant opportunity for Morocco to polish its international image. But attracting the world’s attention could also make Morocco vulnerable, providing Saharawi activists and their international supporters with the chance to highlight Moroccan human rights abuses and the ongoing denial of the Saharawi people’s right to self-determination.
Under the three-year agreement with the city of Laayoune, the AC Milan academy will provide youth from “Laayoune and…the surrounding cities” the opportunity to train with experienced coaches. Having an academy run by such a successful football club will no doubt be highly beneficial to young footballers in the area. According to Mayara, around 90 percent of the players at the academy are Moroccan, while the rest are Saharawi. Although Saharawis in Laayoune are not prevented from joining, it is impossible for Saharawis living in the SADR-controlled part of Western Sahara to do so due to the Moroccan-constructed wall that divides the territory. Furthermore, the participation of individual Saharawi in the academy does nothing to change its broader significance as a win for Morocco in the struggle for control of Western Sahara.
AC Milan could simply have opened an academy somewhere in Morocco’s internationally recognized sovereign territory. Instead it has let itself become a willing part of Morocco’s propaganda machine.
The club did not respond to a request for comment.