North Africans don’t always follow a conventional route into French rugby, as Moroccan international Nabil Jelti tells Alan Dymock as part of our Great Migration series
“In my team I have two friends who came from Morocco – Casablanca and another city – in a boat,” says Nabil Jelti, a 36-year-old Moroccan international who first came to France in 1999 on a tourist visa, then a working visa, before eventually becoming a French citizen. “One is now married and working, and the other is playing here (at Parisian side Gennevilliers, in Fédérale 2). We have similar histories. Circumstances change but the goal is the same: they came over to play rugby.”
Jelti was bitten by the rugby bug at 16 when Morocco-born Abdelatif Benazzi – who hailed from the same club as Jelti – was captain of France. The legendary forward was held up as the man to emulate for young Moroccan players. Work hard, take the risk to go abroad and try rugby at a higher level, and maybe you could do what Benazzi did.
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“I first went to Rouen,” Jelti says of his own journey. “It was difficult because the life is not the same as living with family in Morocco. Finding yourself alone or with new friends, new city, new language, new mood… it was different. I was young and focused on the rugby.”
So what was is it like for a North African in French rugby? “France is like everywhere in the world. If you come and take someone’s place and do better than a French guy, sometimes they don’t accept it.
“But I think in rugby we can be different. We can have a different language or skin colour but we fight for the same thing: to win. Sometimes in defeat I think we can forget all these things.
“I have seen a lot of people come over. My best friend, Abdellatif Boutaty, plays for Stade Français. His career is better than me because he plays in the Top 14. He came when he was 19, grew up in Toulouse (in the centre of excellence), then went to Montauban, Bayonne and now with Stade Français. Last year they won the Challenge Cup.”
We know of the motivation that inspires athletes from the Pacific Islands, Eastern Europe and South Africa to seek fortunes abroad. Their stories are heard often, and so many of them are striking. We think we know, too, of the motivation for many migrants from Africa who brave the odyssey to Europe.
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Jelti offers up a view on why some young men he knows have taken on that trip. “I have some Tunisian friends who came for rugby, some Moroccans. They all try to get opportunities to change their lives with rugby.
“It has helped many people. Yes, of course in Morocco, in Tunisia, life is hard and opportunities are very small. If you don’t have money to pay (to be) students, you know how life can be in North Africa. So sometimes people do cross the sea on small boats.”