In the red petit taxis of Casablanca it doesn’t take long for the conversation to turn into football as the time nears to the match that, for better and for worse, overwhelms the city. When it comes to football rivalries, few in Africa are more intense than the one between Raja Casablanca and Wydad Casablanca.
“The Casablanca Derby is like the Champions League final. It’s like Real Madrid and Barcelona. It’s taken really seriously,” Wydad Casablanca’s striker William Jebor tells me. “It’s worshipped. The whole league waits for this moment.”
It’s derby week in Casablanca, where eternal enemies Wydad and Raja will face-off in what is, potentially, the title decider. With 5 games remaining after the derby, a win for table-toppers Wydad would all but set them on their way to a 19th title while three points for Raja will have the Green Eagles two points adrift of their bete noire.
I meet Jebor after training just as the team is about to skedaddle to the nearby city of Rabat to escape the rising tension in Casablanca. We retreat to a quieter area of Wydad’s lustrous Hadj Mohamed Benjelloun Complex, which is a stone throw’s away from Raja’s training complex, where, over the course of an hour, Jebor speaks assuredly with the conviction of a man who’s at the top of his game.
The Liberian striker contemplates over what could have been as he vividly remembers his first derby back in November, a 0-0 draw, where he came agonisingly close to scoring the winner late on, his shot hitting the inside post before trickling away into safety. That does not put a downer on what has been a wonderful season. The 25-year-old arrived in Casablanca in the summer of 2016 on loan from Rio Ave and, after unrewarding spells in Portugal and Spain, he has been an instant hit.
“It’s fantastic playing football here,” says Jebor, “it’s a massive league, massive club, like the Real Madrid of Africa, everywhere you turn you get to see new things and the people are excited about football. Wydad has a massive fan base, the stadium is packed and people want to see the team win. If I’m moving on the streets everyone wants to take pictures so I have to move carefully and avoid crowded areas.”
His movement on the pitch has been causing havoc for opposition defences in Morocco. 16 goals this season sees Jebor sitting top of Moroccan Botola’s goal-scoring chart. “Being top scorer in this league was what I was looking forward to [when I joined the club] and this has now passed,” Jebor proudly reflects.
Target nearly achieved, then, but what are the ingredients to his success? “It’s football, sometimes you are in a league and everything clicks. For me, it’s just like putting in the work everyday. First of all, thanks to God. I always want to do my best. I don’t believe in the impossible, I just accept the challenges. When I play, I play for my friends, my loved ones and my country. I am an entertainer and that is what we are paid to do…entertain and put joy on people’s’ faces.
Jebor’s quick integration is remarkable given his wife, a childhood sweetheart, and children are based in the USA, explaining the hint of an American accent that sometimes drops out when he speaks. Culturally, he attributes his years in the Arab world as the foundations of his stellar debut season in Morocco. A fluent Arabic speaker, his first foray into Arabic-speaking countries started with Taliya FC in Syria, moving straight from Liberia as a teenager playing in the 10th tier of Liberia just years earlier. “It was a different culture, a different language, but it helped me learn Arabic. The people were incredible people, they showed me so much love, it breaks my heart to see what people there are going through now.”
Thereafter, he would seamlessly fit into Egypt with Tersana, Al Sharquia Lel-Dokhan and then El Geish, and then Libya, where he won the league while on loan with Al Ahly Tripoli. This consistency was enough to staple his status as his nation’s premier marksman. A patriotic Liberian, Jebor’s love for his country shines through. “Every time I play I know my brothers, sisters, wife and kids are watching. It’s an honour to fly the flag, when I’m on the pitch I have something to give and I give it 100%.”
There’s sadness in his voice as he recalls the Lone Stars narrowly missing out on qualification, by a solitary point, for this year’s Cup of Nations. If they had they held on to their 2-0 lead versus Togo in Matchday 5 they would have surely pipped the Sparrow Hawks to qualify as one of the best runners-up.
Yet Jebor is optimistic Liberia won’t wither away under the gaze of coach James Debbah. “Next qualification we will qualify. we have talent, charisma, work forward as a team, with calibre of players it’s difficult but easy if we work together.”
Being Liberian and a striker, comparisons with George Weah are always difficult to shake off. While he is not the calibre of Weah, his naming on the 30-man longlist for African Player of the Year award in 2016 is a testament to his own talent. “When I was growing up, I used to watch George Weah. I was very, very small but wanted to play football like him. I began in the streets and got spotted. I did a good job with the national team and have managed to travel abroad.”
“George Weah is a great figure in Africa. Me playing football as a Liberian means everyone is looking to me to inspire the nation. I work hard to put myself in the position that people know there’s more great payers in Liberia after George Weah, the current generation talents awaiting discovery. I’m never broken, where I come from makes my mind strong. I always say I will get better. Young kids in Africa have a lot of coverage and belief. We are not afraid to fail, so if you have courage you overcome fear. Fear is what keeps people back.”
While fellow footballers, and football fanatics, were rushing home and to cafes to watch the European Champions League, Jebor was heading home to switch off from football, to feed his focus, which he does so by listening to an eclectic range of music and reading motivational books, especially his favourite – The Bible. Rest assured, come Sunday in the Casablanca derby Raja should be wary as Jebor will be ready to switch on again.