The Moroccan football team and its fans subverted a World Cup that looked set to be a stultifying showcase for state and corporate power. From solidarity with other African nations to the celebration of Arab identity, they’ve left behind an important legacy.
Morocco’s run in the World Cup was exhilarating. Led by coach Walid Regragui, who took over only some months ago, the Atlas Lions exceeded all expectations, defeating three former European colonial powers (Belgium, Spain, and Portugal), and acquitting themselves well in their semifinal defeat to reigning champions France.
From the mass prayer sessions in Indonesia to the celebrations on the streets of Egypt and Cameroon, this team has won the hearts of millions — Africans, Arabs, Muslims, and migrants who see themselves in this team.
Images that will endure: playmaker Hakim Ziyech’s light-footed turns, midfielder Sofyan Amrabat — dubbed Minister of Defense — and his barreling runs, and team captain Achraf Hakimi’s post-match embrace of his mother, who worked as a domestic in Madrid, Spain, while raising her children.
But for Moroccans, it was also the Moroccan takeover of the Qatari stadiums that has captivated the world: the pulsating drums, castanets, colorful outfits, and elaborate songs. One chant has tens of thousands jumping up and down, “Bougez! Bougez! li ma bougash, mashi Maghribi” (“Move! Move! If you don’t move, you’re not Moroccan”).
The most widely circulated memes in Morocco have been clips of players and the coach talking to the press in darija (Moroccan Arabic vernacular), and all the bewilderment and hilarity that has been provoked from Western and Arab observers alike. In importing Moroccan stadium culture to Doha, this World Cup also brought hyperlocal debates about Moroccan language and national identity to the world stage.
Arabic football commentary was something else, and at the World Cup, the Tunisian commentator Issam Chaouali screams for players and for the world to pay attention to obvious geopolitical change. When Cameroon scored against Brazil, he shouted “Ya Braziwww, ya Braziww!”— then he says, “Mama Africa is rising.” When Germany, Spain, and Brazil were eliminated, he remarked, “The moons may disappear, but there is no shortage of stars.”
The Moroccan team has drawn high praise of course: its rise, a sign of “Arab ambition” and “Arab pride,” and its triumphs, proof that “impossible is not in the Arabic dictionary.” The possibility of a shared identity, language, and community soars and spreads, stirring viewers across the Arabic-speaking world.
And even Africa and beyond. . .
Similar debates have taken place in social media in the World — is Morocco African or Arab? After qualifying for the semifinals, the New York Times tweeted that Morocco was the first “Arab team” to qualify — the following day, it issued a correction that it was the first “African team.”
Much has been made of Moroccan coach Regragui’s pan-Africanism. He first raised eyebrows when he told a news conference that their aim was to play the game at a European level, but with “our African values.” Asked a few days later whether Morocco was representing Africa or the Arab world, he prefaced his answer, “without getting political,” and then proceeded to give a nuanced response:
To begin with . . . we defend Morocco and the Moroccans. . . . After that we are also African, and that is a priority . . . we hope to show that African football (“often denigrated”) has entered a new phase. . . . After, by necessity, because of our religion and origins and for a first World Cup set in the Middle East and the Arab world, there are people who will identify with us. Obviously, we are role models, and we hope to make them happy. If they can see us as standard-bearers, we would be happy to make them happy if we go through.
After the match against Portugal, Azzedine Ounahi, the midfielder and one of the tournament’s breakout stars, similarly dedicated the victory first to Africa:
We’ve entered into history for Africa and even for the Arabs. . . . We thank Africa that has always followed and encouraged us, and same with the Arabs.
Festivals, exhibits, conferences, and television documentaries celebrating the kingdom’s ties to “Ifriqiya” now abound. And it has become the norm, since Morocco’s adoption of the 2011 constitution (which speaks of “African unity”) and its return to the African Union, to describe Morocco as Arab and African in whichever order.
The experiences of the indigenous labouring classes of French West and Equatorial Africa in the first two decades of the twentieth century provide us with a picture of the game’s diffusion which differs somewhat from that which developed in Europe, where football’s expansion was characterised by immediate accessibility and widespread opportunities for participation. However, in French North Africa, where the game was introduced around the turn of the century, the organisation of football was more advanced than in the equatorial regions and was characterised by a higher degree of mass popularity. The comparatively advanced state of the African game in the northern territories was also evidenced by the fact that Morocco and Tunisia not only had fully fledged leagues but put forward their most successful teams to compete against their counterparts from the three Algerian leagues for the North African Club Championship and the North African Cup.
Former Indomitable Lion, Bertin Ebwelle explains what it meant to win the AFCON 1988 in Morocco on 27th March 1988 after the hostile reception in Egypt, two years earlier:
“Egypt, which had not won the AFCON since 1959, was determined to put an end to this long period in the wilderness, even if it meant using highly questionable moral methods. And we were going to find that out the hard way. On the eve of the final, we learned that there was not a single training ground available in Cairo, an argument that left the technical staff and us, the players doubtful.”
“While CAF, whose headquarters, it should be noted, is based in the Egyptian capital, did not lift a finger to solve the problem, Claude Le Roy, the French coach of our team, had to organise a training session in a public garden in the midst of families. A few hours later, we were informed that Taher Abou Zeid – Egypt’s best player – was no longer suspended for the final, his second yellow card having been cancelled by CAF. The Pharaohs went on to win their third title on penalties after a very tight final (0-0, 5-4 on penalties).
“Claude Le Roy and most of us who had been in Egypt two years earlier still hadn’t digested the methods used by the Pharaohs, with the help of CAF,” Ebwelle Bertin told kick442.com.
The revenge of the Indomitable Lions would be brilliant, and it took place very early during the AFCON in 1988 organised in Morocco.
On 14 March 1988, in Rabat, Roger Milla scored the only goal of the match, during the first match of the first round. This defeat had serious consequences on Egypt, as they were eliminated at the end of the group stage.
During the final on 27 March 1988, redemption happened on the fateful day as Cameroon beat Nigeria to win their second AFCON title.
A second-half penalty from Emmanuel Kunde settled the tie in Casablanca but the memories still linger in the minds of those who watched the match because of contrasting views.
Henry Nwosu’s goal was disallowed and I feel it was rightly ruled out for offside. Roger Milla made a meal out the tackle that was on the edge of the box and Referee Idrissa Sarr of Mauritania awarded a penalty to Cameroon. The rest is history…
Morocco’s historic ties to the Arab world and other African countries are strong, connected by language, faith, and suffering. And “Africa,” with whom Morocco has long-neglected bonds, too, has — also because of state policy — recently emerged as a political alternative, an escape from Arab domination and erasure. It’s not a surprise that tensions around these alternatives have been playing out in CAF offices, amidst the beauty of football.
The Moroccan tie with Cameroon that was host of the 2021 AFCON and Egypt that Africa called home in 2019 is certainly a strong case for their quest.
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