Andy Mitten

Barça jet in for African cup tie

Andy Mitten

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Barcelona will play a competitive match in Africa tonight, one that coach Pep Guardiola describes as "the most dangerous game of the season."

The Catalans have been drawn against third division Ceuta in the Copa Del Rey. Ceuta is one of two Spanish enclaves in North Africa. Melia - 150 miles to the east, is the other. Both are tiny, densely populated ports which front the Mediterranean, while sharing their heavy fortified land borders with Morocco.

When Ceuta and Melia meet at football, one team flies to Spain and then take a boat or flight back across the Straits of Gibraltar to Africa.

It may be the only match in professional football where both clubs play their home games on one continent while belonging to a league from a different one.

Ceuta usually makes the news with the stories of thousands of Africans who make tortuous journeys across the Sahara to try and get into these little enclaves of Europe, where mosques and churches stand cheek to cheek. They hope to claim asylum, but over 1,000 Spanish officers are on hand to stop this.

Now Ceuta is in the news because of Barça's visit. Its 75,000 population have been looking forward to the game ever since their local side drew the Spanish champions.

They're not happy about the €150 main stand tickets, but with a capacity of just 6,400, Ceuta want to cash in on their clash with the star-studded champions. Though they are not stellar enough for the Ceuta president, who wants to see more of Barça's World Cup winners to sate the appetite of local autograph hunters. Echoes then of Manchester United's cup tie at Port Vale in 1994 when the local MP complained that United had sent a team of unknowns containing young players like David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and Gary Neville. United won, as Barça could if they sent their B team who play in the league above Ceuta.

Guardiola, however, will take a relatively strong squad which includes Javier Mascherano, Carles Puyol, Eric Abidal, Maxwell, Adriano, Seydou Keita, Pedro and Bojan alongside six promoted B-teamers.

The matchday journey will start with a 90 minute flight to Malaga. As Ceuta does not have an airport, the Barça players will transfer to helicopters - Guardiola has never been on one before - for the 30 minute hop to Africa. It won't be so easy for the travelling fan. They'll return by the same method after the game and get home at three tomorrow morning.

Morocco does not recognise Spanish sovereignty over Ceuta, much like the Spanish don't recognise Gibraltar being British. Ceuta also is famous for being the birthplace of the former Barça midfielder Mohammed Ali Amar, better known for his performances for Tottenham and Zaragoza under his nickname 'Nayim'. He scored Zaragoza's winning goal from the halfway line in the last minute of the 1995 European Cup Winners Cup final against Tottenham's arch rivals, Arsenal, a goal which inspired the song "Nayim From The Halfway Line."

The quirks of colonial geography means that when Nayim says, "I am proud to be a European and I am proud to be African," he is not lying.

Nayim caused a famous upset years ago, but even if his hometown team beat Barça tonight, they're unlikely to progress to the next round as the Catalans have the safety net of a second leg in Camp Nou. Not that the Barça players are likely to forget their trip to Africa in a hurry.

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