Morocco Has Given the Arab World Something to Cheer for Again

AMMAN, Jordan — Morocco’s stunning performance in the World Cup, its progress to a semifinal game with France and the worldwide elation it has engendered captures a special moment for Moroccans and many others from the Arab world and beyond.

This is not just your classic underdog story, a tale of global south revanchism against former colonial powers and historic adversaries, or a surge of Arab, African and Muslim pride. Beyond the memes, Morocco’s performance in this year’s World Cup points to a special moment of vulnerability, self-awareness and unguarded optimism that I have not seen in this region since the 2011 uprisings.

I am the last person who would normally making such grandiose pronouncements based on a sporting event. When I was growing up in Morocco in the 1980s, my disinterest in football (don’t make me call it soccer) was total. At school, I was the gangly, uncoordinated kid who would systematically be picked last when teams were selected during gym class. The closest I would usually come to the ball would be when it hit me in the back of the head as I drifted across the field, lost in thought. During World Cups, my friends would eagerly collect Panini Sticker Albums of the qualifying teams’ players (the international football equivalent of baseball cards); I preferred the ones about dinosaurs.

Fast forward a little over 30 years, to last week. I am in Beirut, nearly in tears, in the arms of a waiter in a hotel bar. Morocco just defeated Spain in penalties after a long, tense game and made it to the quarterfinals for the first time in the history of the tournament. The bar has erupted in shouts and applause. Soon, in Beirut, in Morocco and across the Arab world and much of Europe, Morocco fans of all stripes will be honking their cars and celebrating late into the night. Friends, colleagues and relatives call or write — to me! — with congratulations. That evening, I barely sleep.

Over the next few days, as Morocco progresses to the semifinals after beating Portugal, there are scenes of celebration from war-devastated places like Gaza and statements of countless officials from governments and international organizations offering their congratulations. In Amman, the Jordanian capital, where I live, companies change their advertisement to cash in on Morocco-mania. When I go to a store to buy a mattress, I am offered “the Morocco discount.” Once a football grinch, I have thought about little else for the past week; apparently so have most people in the region.

For Moroccans, this is not just run-of-the-mill chauvinism. The country has worked hard for this, overhauling its football federation over a decade ago and investing far more in its players. Walid Regragui, the cerebral coach who can eloquently explain each of his decisions with precise analysis of the opposing teams’ strengths and weaknesses. Morocco did not just get lucky; it defeated, with a defense-heavy strategy, far more experienced and highly ranked teams through grit and often brutal consequences for its players, who again and again suffered injuries by putting themselves in the way of fierce attacks.

There is plenty to be proud about, but much more fundamentally it is about holding our own in the big league, about seeing players who look like us ­— a palette of white, olive and brown skin; or curly and kinky hair; the sharp, angular, brooding features of Hakim Ziyech; the joyous, luminescent face of Achraf Hakimi; the handsome charm of unflappable goalkeeper Yassine Bounou — reach this elevated place on the world stage.

What we are feeling is also a more evolved form of national pride, with none of the complexes about who is a “real” Moroccan and who is not. Half the team is composed of binationals, and Regragui himself was born in France. Part of the team’s success is that it can draw on players from Europe’s well-endowed clubs, of course, but that is not the point. In France, far-right politicians like Eric Zemmour complain on prime-time television about too much dark skin in the national team and are indignant that Franco-Moroccans would choose to support Morocco in the semifinal; in Morocco, no one would dare suggest that the national team is somehow unrepresentative.

On the contrary, it represents Morocco’s diversity, the fact that it is a country of emigrants, of Arabs, Berbers and Jews, which thinks of itself as African as well as Middle Eastern. It confounds some that this team can be feted in Tel Aviv by Moroccan Jews and also fly the Palestinian flag in solidarity with an oppressed people, but that is precisely the cosmopolitanism and universalism that has resonated in much of the world.

How we feel about this World Cup is how we would like to feel about our politics, our children’s futures, our place in the world. It is the same feeling I felt in Tunis’s Avenue Bourguiba and Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011, and that I imagine many felt in Algiers, Beirut or Khartoum in 2019. These were moments where we could project to the world a different image than how we fear the world sees us as: either victims or fanatics, struggling to survive amid conflict, terrorism, social and economic decay, and authoritarianism.

The Moroccan team represents how we would like to think of ourselves: confident, intelligent, rigorous, hard-working, funny and openhearted. Regardless of how well it does going forward, I know this moment of elation is fleeting. But even after the football fever has receded and we get back to our daily struggles, we will stand a little taller.

Issandr El Amrani (@arabist) is a Moroccan-American writer based in Amman, Jordan, and the executive director for Middle East and North Africa at Open Society Foundations. He writes in his personal capacity.

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