Football turns into 'release' for jailed Africans in Morocco
"Africa Forever," reads the banner over the gate of a jail for young offenders in Casablanca hosting the finals of a football tournament in tandem with the African Nations Championship in Morocco.
Abderrahman, a 29-year-old Moroccan serving a 10-year sentence for murder, was one of the players taking part with inmates from a dozen African countries in the mini-tournament.
"It's like a release!" said the tall, well-built defender in the bright red Moroccan shirt.
Benacer Bennaissa, the head of social services in Morocco's penitentiary service, said more than 100 detainees have been taking part in the tournament staged at Oukacha prison in Casablanca.
In a first such event for Morocco, it was contested by prisoners brought together from four jails in Casablanca, Tangiers, Marrakesh and Agadir, the venues of the championship which culminates with a Morocco-Nigeria final on Sunday.
"We've organised knock-out matches, quarter-finals and semis," he said, as well as a game for third place ahead of the final.
At the third-place match on the hard surface of the prison yard, Cameroon and Mali battled it out as officials from the Moroccan football federation and prisons services watched from a stand erected for the occasion.
Behind a goal, rows of young inmates, watched closely by guards, belted out football chants accompanied by drum beats, as the flags of the 12 African nations taking part fluttered down from the barbed-wire-topped prison walls.
On the back of some tough tackling in an encounter which ran the 30 minutes allocated for the tournament matches, Cameroon emerged the victors.
"We wanted to play in the final but we didn't deserve it. But at least we won this mini-final," said Cameroon's goalkeeper Francis with a smile on his face.
Francis, serving a one-year term for "a drunken fight", praised prison staff and Morocco's King Mohammed VI "who thinks of us, the African prisoners", to the approval of a prison service worker escorting journalists at the event.
- 'Real talent' -
The tournament provided rare access to Morocco's 77 prisons holding around 75,000 detainees that have been regularly criticised over the conditions.
In a typical case of overcrowding, Oukacha has a capacity of 5,800 prisoners but houses 8,000 inmates, according to the Moroccan Observatory of Prisons.
Francis and his Cameroon team-mates made way for the finalists, Morocco and Guinea, with the supporters brimming with enthusiasm for the home side.
Hand on heart, the fans burst into a rendition of the Moroccan national anthem and applause.
To the delight of the crowd, victory went to the Moroccans who were awarded the winners' trophy by a former Tunisian international footballer, Adel Chadly, the guest of honour.
"There is some real talent in the prisons, some players of high standard," said Abdelmoumen Cherif, a member of the technical staff who organised the tournament.