Over the past two weeks, Moroccans worldwide have been on a wild ride as their team pushed far into the 2022 World Cup elimination stages. In the round of sixteen, the heroic saves of the Montreal-born and Casablanca-grown Moroccan goalkeeper, Yassine “Bono” Bounou, and the Madrid-born Achraf Hakimi’s exquisite panenka penalty kick sealed Morocco’s victory over Spain in a dramatic shootout against their cross-Strait of Gibraltar rival of the day.
Then, last Saturday, Moroccans endured the longest seven minutes of their lives. In the first half of the World Cup quarter-final match against their other Iberian football powerhouse neighbor, Fez-native, Youssef En-Nesyri, had put Morocco’s Atlas Lions up 1-0 with a perfectly timed run and leap to head the ball down past Portugal’s goalie. But, three minutes into the ten minutes of extra time, the Moroccan side went down a man after their Italian-born forward, Walid Cheddira, was questionably ejected after two rapid yellow cards. Clinging to the slim lead, Morocco’s stubborn defense held up against Portugal’s onslaught as the clock ticked down, propelling them to a historic semi-final matchup against France. Battling a raft of injuries, the Moroccan side fought tenaciously but came up short against Kylian Mbappé and the rest of France’s juggernaut.
Despite defeat, the Atlas Lion’s Cinderella run made them the darling and defining team of the 2022 World Cup, the underdog feel-good story of the tournament that has tapped into deep global identification and solidarity. In Qatar, Morocco essentially enjoyed a home-field advantage, with the Education City Stadium crowd in the game against Spain cheering at a volume of 150 decibels - the equivalent of a jet engine taking off - after Hakimi put in the winning shot. And, their victories have set off delirious celebrations from Doha to Tangier, Rabat, and Casablanca to Brussels and Paris, and from Riyadh and Gaza to Yaounde to Abidjan.
Morocco made World Cup history, alternatingly being hailed either as the first “Arab” team to make it this far and reach the quarter-final, and the first “African” team to reach the final four. They carried the hopes and dreams of not only just the Arab world, the Muslim world, or of Africa, but also of many in the Global South, after they defeated one former colonizer, Spain, and turned to face the other one, France. An array of supporters including Jordan’s Queen Rania, Senegalese President Macky Sall, and former African stars like Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o and Côte d’Ivoire’s Didier Drogba all expressed admiration.
Defying any attempt at either/or categorization, what the Moroccan team captures and embodies is the distinct “both/and” reality of Moroccan global identity, history, and experience. These Moroccan paradoxes and tensions have been on full display in Qatar.
Perhaps most obviously, the team represents Morocco’s both/and twenty-first-century global demography: thirty-seven million Moroccans live in Morocco, and another five million live abroad, mainly in Europe. As has been widely noted, fourteen out of the twenty-six-man Moroccan team were born outside of the country, mainly in the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, France, or Spain. Some of these players have a hard time speaking Darija, the Moroccan Arabic dialect(and one wonders which language the coach, Regragui, himself French-born, uses to talk to them), but they somehow manage to communicate, support, and, most importantly, successfully play together as a team.
Across these diverse backgrounds, Moroccan identity has a stronghold. In a recent interview, Bounou, the goalkeeper, who studied in a French lycée in Casablanca and speaks French fluently, refused to answer questions in languages other than Arabic. The Madrileño, Hakimi, who was recruited to play for the Spanish team, explains that opting to play for Morocco was a no-brainer for him: that was how he was raised, and that is how he feels.
Of course, the process is not that simple or straightforward. Over the past decade, the Moroccan Soccer Federation has invested both in infrastructure for domestic talent development and in a system that identifies promising players in the diaspora with Moroccan parents and recruits them. In general, these contacts take place when the players are very young, so it is the parents who are approached, making the patriotic pitch easier and more efficient. The Moroccan federation pragmatically casts a wide net: young players are not required to have a Moroccan passport, be registered at the Moroccan consulate, or to speak Moroccan Darija. In fact, a good number of the players’ families originate from northern Morocco where Tarifit, a dialect of the indigenous Amazigh community, is the dominant language. If they play well and agree to play for Morocco, that is good enough.
But, the both/and dynamics of games like those against Belgium, Spain, and France are also particularly challenging for the Moroccan diaspora. Moroccans constitute Spain’s largest migrant community, and over 1.1 million Moroccans live in France. Many feel grateful for being able to make a living in those countries, to raise families and, very often, to support family back home, but, at the same time, many feel constantly looked down upon, as racism and discrimination are part of their lives in both Spain and France. Soccer matches present an opportunity to express national pride if “their” team manages to defeat their hosts; they can also be viewed as security risks, with Moroccan celebrations leading to several clashes with police in Brussels and Paris over the past weeks.
Morocco’s World Cup run has also been replete with storylines related to complex imperial and colonial legacies, which are closely entangled with Spain and France. Situated at the geographic juncture where Africa almost touches Eurasia, the late King Hassan II famously quipped, “Morocco is a tree whose roots are in Africa and branches in Europe.” Between the tenth and the early seventeenth centuries, the Moroccan tree produced successive empires that extended control over most of the Western Mediterranean, including the Iberian Peninsula, and into West Africa. Moroccan dynasties, namely the still reigning Alaouites, then went mostly on the defensive in the seventeenth centuries and onward, protecting its autonomy from Portuguese, Spanish, Ottoman, French, and English expansion
In the early twentieth century, however, Morocco succumbed and was colonized by both the French and the Spanish, with each taking zones of control as they established a “protectorate” form of rule in 1912 that nominally respected the sovereignty of the Moroccan sultan and sought to “preserve” Morocco’s tradition and culture while pretending to modernize the country. The independent Morocco that emerged in the late 1950s, despite degrees of continuity, had been profoundly transformed after four decades of colonialism.
Twenty-first-century postcolonial Moroccan identity, officially and sociologically, is both deeply plural and unified. The 2011 constitution defines and defends the kingdom’s unity as a Muslim state forged from Arab, Muslim, Amazigh, Saharan-Hassani, African, Andalusian, “Hebrew” (recognizing the symbolic importance of Morocco’s deeply rooted Jewish minority), and Mediterranean components. The nation’s official languages are now both Arabic and Tamazight (spoken by perhaps thirty to forty percent of the population). Darija, the language spoken by the vast majority of Moroccans, fuses Tamazight and Arabic structure and vocabulary and integrates a slew of French, Spanish, and English loan words.
Since independence, Morocco has enjoyed very close relations with France, and to a certain extent Spain, and the Moroccan elite have actively deepened those links. Although French is not an official language in Morocco, it is widely used in administration and business, as well as in education. As for Spain, Morocco hosts one of the largest representations of its cultural diplomacy arm, Instituto Cervantés, through which the Spanish language and culture -including architecture- is kept alive in Morocco. Both countries, as noted, also have significant Moroccan migrant communities. But recent crises with both Spain and France have reshuffled the priorities of the Moroccan elite and forced it to reconsider its links.
The King himself has encouraged a broader pivot to deepening Morocco’s relations within Africa as an alternative to Morocco’s dependence on Europe. Consequently, the African dimension in Moroccan identity has been far more present in public discourse as well as in social and cultural events. It should hence come as no surprise that many Africans have been rooting for Morocco in this World Cup, especially after the elimination of the other teams from the continent, and more so when Morocco played France, a common former colonial power to many African states.
Perhaps the developments during this World Cup that most clearly encapsulates a Moroccan “both/and” is the explicit and visible solidarity the Moroccan players and Moroccan fans have displayed in Qatar towards the Palestinian cause. Exactly two years ago, Morocco re-established its diplomatic links with Israel and has been reinforcing those links since (there are now direct Tel-Aviv to Casablanca flights), but the Moroccan national squad has frequently made a point of carrying and taking pictures, particularly in post-game celebrations, with the Palestinian flag. In these actions, the team reflects the broader duality of Morocco’s official and popular stances on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. At a moment when Morocco and Israel are deepening economic and security related ties, King Mohamed VI himself also keeps reiterating Morocco’s unwavering support of the Palestinian cause, publicly and officially thanking China last Friday, 9 December, for its steady support to the Palestinian cause.
As they reached the semi-final of the 2022 World Cup, the Atlas Lions embodied and represented, on a global stage, the “both this and that” daily paradoxes Moroccans deal with. Moroccans process these almost automatically until outsiders call their attention to seeming contradictions. “So what?” is the answer most Moroccans give to that questioning, and it is the answer the Moroccan team gave on the field. The picture of Sofiane Boufal dancing with his mother and celebrating Morocco’s win over Portugal is perhaps the most poignant image of the happy and hopeful message these players sent to all Moroccans and to the world from Qatar.