The decades-long rivalry between North African neighbours Morocco and Algeria has spilled onto the football pitch, leaving the Moroccan team out of the African Nations Championship (CHAN).
The Atlas Lions' under-23 team, winner of the last two CHAN tournaments, withdrew its participation on Friday after host Algeria refused to authorise a direct flight from Rabat.
Algiers closed its airspace to all Moroccan flights in September 2021, a month after severing ties. CHAN organisers said the team could have taken an indirect flight.
Fouzi Lekjaa, head of Morocco's FRMF football federation, said it was "really regrettable that the Moroccan national team, which had been preparing seriously for six months to participate in CHAN and defend its title, was deprived of the chance".
The team left the Rabat-Sale airport on Friday afternoon after hours of waiting for a green light to take off to the Algerian city of Constantine, an AFP photographer said.
The players and staff boarded a bus and left the airport where they had been waiting since the early morning, the photographer added.
The Algerian organising committee said last week the host had no obligation to let players arrive via direct flights, Moroccan news website Hespress reported.
The committee's chair, Rachid Oukali, noted most other teams would probably have layovers on the way, according to Hespress.
Algeria broke off diplomatic ties with Morocco in August 2021, citing "hostile acts" by the kingdom and accusing it of spying on top officials.
The two countries are locked in a bitter rivalry partly over the disputed territory of Western Sahara, where the Algerian-backed Polisario movement seeks an independence referendum.
The United States in 2020 recognised Moroccan sovereignty over the territory in a quid pro quo for re-establishing ties with Israel, to the chagrin of Algiers -- which for decades has seen itself as North Africa's main champion of the Palestinian cause.
- 'Sovereign matter' -
The Moroccan football federation on Thursday said it was informed last month by the Confederation of African Football (CAF) that Algeria had issued "an authorisation in principle" for the direct flight from Rabat to Constantine.
But the flight had not been confirmed, the FRMF added, announcing it was cancelling its participation in the CHAN.
Morocco's foreign ministry said later on Thursday the team would indeed travel, leading to the hours-long wait at the airport.
Algeria had not confirmed whether it had approved the flight.
As the Moroccan team waited in Rabat, Gianni Infantino and Patrice Motsepe, heads of world governing body FIFA and CAF respectively, arrived from Algeria, where they had attended the opening of a new stadium.
Motsepe said he was "sad" that the team had been unable to travel for the tournament.
"I want these young boys to represent the people of Morocco and the people of Africa as well," he said at the airport.
"I've spent the last few days doing everything possible" to facilitate the journey, he added.
Motsepe said Algerian officials had told him they were looking into it, but "they said this is a sovereign matter."
While in Rabat, the CAF and FIFA chiefs also attended the draw for the FIFA Club World Cup, set to start in Morocco on February 1.
Morocco made history last month by becoming the first African or Arab team ever to reach the semi-finals of a World Cup.