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Sunday 20th December 2015 ko 17.00

Copa Regional de Ceuta- Final

CARMELITAS 1 (Jose 34p) Juande Dios sent off 57 (DOGSO)

RAMON Y CAJAL 4 (Alessandro 24 Cristian 81 Nabil 87 Hamid Oulad 90) Chakin missed penalty 59 Cristian sent off 90 (violent conduct)

Att c300 at Estadio Alfonso Murube, Ceuta

Entry FREE

Programme NO

The difficulty in planning any football in Spain is that the fixtures aren’t fixed until less than a week beforehand. If it’s league fixture, then you can predict with a reasonable degree of certainty that the game will take place on a given weekend, but that could be any time between Friday and Monday, although the part-time Segunda B, and Tercera divisions are far more likely to play on Saturdays and Sundays. All you can do is cover your options and wait. And there were so many good reasons to visit Ceuta too….

Ceuta is a Spanish enclave in North Africa, just 12 miles over the Straits of Gibraltar from Algeciras, and like it’s twins Melilla and Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera to the east is wholly surrounded on its land borders by Morocco. The city’s geographical position at the confluence of the Atlantic and Mediterranean made it of great strategic importance and at various times has been run by both Spain and Portugal. The pivotal moment in Ceuta’s recent times came when in 1936 General Franco seized control of the Spanish African Army and launched the Spanish Civil War from Ceuta.

At that time Ceuta was nothing more than a free port in Spanish Morocco. But in 1956 Spain recognised Morocco’s independence, but retained the plazas de soberanía, to leave today’s enclaves held by Spain, but claimed by Morocco. In many ways the place felt like the yang to Gibraltar’s ying.

If the previous day’s trip to watch Algeciras CF looked problematic, this had all kinds of difficulties attached to it. For a start from Gibraltar meant another disputed border to cross, although we sailed though with barely a glance at our passports, but getting from La Linea to the port at Algeciras wasn’t straightforward. We could have hired a car but the hire centre closes at 10pm, way after when we’d get back. There’s no train service, and the last bus back to La Linea was at 9.30pm, again far too early for us. So we opted for a €36 taxi ride, which given that there was two us seemed reasonable value when compared to €10 each for the bus. Sometimes an easy existence is worth paying for!

At the port building there are 3 businesses offering ferries to Ceuta, and each desk has the time of their next sailing clearly displayed. We simply picked the next ferry and paid €60 each after checking that the we could easily make the return sailing after the match! From then on, it’s best to imagine yourself taking an international flight from a small airport. You will need your passport even though you’re not crossing an international boundary and the security checks such as x-rays and metal detectors are present too, although the restrictions on fluids are not.

So 90 minutes after leaving Algeciras we arrived in a new continent… but to be frank it didn’t look that much different from what we’d left behind. In fact Gibraltar felt more different from La Linea over in Spain. It took time to feel the change of flavour, there are greater numbers of people of Moroccan extraction, 50% of the Ceutan population are Muslim, and around half-an-hour before our game one of the club officials quietly found a corner of the stadium to face Mecca and pray. The best explanation I can give you as to what Ceuta is like is to comment that the rest of Andalusia feels like Spain with a Moorish influence, but Ceuta feels Moorish with a Spanish influence.

We were a little unlucky with the fixtures. Ceuta’s biggest club AD Ceuta play at the Alfonso Murube Stadium in the Tercera Grupo 10 (Fourth Division) and seem to play most of their home games on a Sunday at 5pm. That would allow the chance to watch a “Juvenil” or Under-18 game at the nearby Jose Benoleil stadium beforehand, and walk the 1km between them. That would have left just the tiny Jose Martinez “Pirri” ground near the fort to complete the full-sized football grounds in Ceuta. Unfortunately, since the Murube is owned by the Ceuta FA this cup final was played on the Sunday, AD Ceuta played the previous day and all the age-based football was switched to the Saturday. Unfortunate, but I’ve no regrets as to what happened and what we watched.

It’s fair to say the Estadio Alfonso Murube has had a chequered history. The ground was built in 1933 as a home to Ceuta Club Sport and was named the Campo Municipal de Deporte, or “Docker” for short. The club played in the Campeonato Hispano-Marroquí, a regional league for Spanish Morocco. It changed its name to Sociedad Deportiva Ceuta in 1941, and the stadium reflected the political winds of the time being renamed the Alfonso Murube stadium in honour of Alfonso Murube, a former player who died in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War, fighting for the Nationalists at the Battle of Aranjuez.

Everything changed in 1956 with Moroccan independence. The club suddenly found itself absorbing most of nearby Atlético Tetuán’s players from a Segunda League outfit that found themselves no longer Spanish. They took the Moroccan side’s place in the Segunda but ever since Ceutan sides have found it difficult to maintain a place in mainland Spanish football. The current AD Ceuta dates from only the 2013-14 season after a previous incarnation went bankrupt.

The stadium now has a capacity of 6,500 although over 7,000 saw Barcelona’s visit here in the Copa de Rey in 2010, and reflecting the sheer volume of football played here a 3G pitch was laid here in recent years. The ground is a wonderful piece of stadium architectural ingenuity to allow a level pitch half-way up a hill, and surrounded by housing. It seemed to me that the ground has morphed to fit into the space available.

The Ceuta FF (Football Association) runs the Ceuta Regional Preferential League, which slots in nominally below the Tercera, with the possibility of there being a play-off between the champions of Ceuta and Melilla for the right to play a lower-ranked team from the Andalusian Preferential League to progress. Mind you, there was also talk of the Ceutan champions entering the Andalusian League, which seems odd since the Tercera is split for Andalusia, Group 10 for the West including Ceuta and Group 9 for east and Melilla.

This was the final of a cup competition ran throughout the first half of the season, the league proper doesn’t start until 2016. The league was split into 2 mini leagues of 4 clubs each, with the top two clubs in the leagues playing in semi-finals. It isn’t the most important cup final I’ll ever attend, but I’ll seldom enjoy myself more.

It didn’t start well. We arrived 30 minutes before kick-off and the place looked sufficiently deserted for me to check that the game was still on. We walked round to the players entrance, and the reaction of all present when they worked out two Englishmen had come to see them was priceless. I could hear the comments of “Dos Inglés!” as we walked round to the main stand, just as the place filled up at the last minute!

It was a good advert for the Ceutan game. Two good sides, and plenty of incident made a memorable afternoon. We really didn’t want extra time, the 8.30pm boat was the last until 11.30 and the pivotal moment was Carmlitos’ Juande Rios’ dismissal for handling a goalbound shot. Chakin missed the resulting penalty but the balance of power was altered for Ramon to run in three late goals and see substitute Cristian see red for a stupid headbutt.

The celebrations were heartfelt, and as we sat back on the boat (remembering to go to the port kiosk to get a boarding card before going through security) back to Europe we reflected on a real quirk, a game in Africa in a Spanish League with Spanish clubs. Sundays are seldom this satisfying.