Morocco v. France World Cup match carries tangled political baggage

Photo 246451203 / Fifa World Cup © Nattawit Khomsanit |
Ishaan Tharoor is a columnist on the foreign desk of The Washington Post, where he authors the Today’s WorldView newsletter and column. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.

Morocco’s journey to the World Cup semifinals has all the makings of a fairy tale. Game after game in Qatar, the unfancied North African side improbably swept past favored opponents, surging to victory with tenacity, bravado and no shortage of talent. Their triumphs have led to moments of transcendence – scenes of joyous celebration in cities across Morocco and beyond as the Atlas Lions became the cause celebre of the Middle East, the Arab world and North Africa.

In Doha, the main staging ground of the tournament, the first African and Arab team to reach this stage of a World Cup are the toast of the town. In European capitals, a broader immigrant North African diaspora has taken to the streets to cheer their success. In the stadiums, Morocco’s work ethic and determination – as well as the bravery of numerous players playing through injuries – has been matched by their perceived sweetness and kindness. Some of the most viral videos from the World Cup are of Moroccan players embracing and dancing with their mothers on the pitch after a victory.

Morocco’s underdog heroism has been epitomized by its coach, Walid Regragui, who took over the national team this past August after a successful career at the domestic level. Maher Mezahi, a journalist with expertise on North African soccer, detailed how the French-born Regragui is part of a new wave of sporting leadership on the continent. “He represents everything that is right in African football: He’s young, competent, cosmopolitan, fearless and a pan-Africanist at heart,” Mezahi wrote.

Ahead of Morocco’s epic semifinal clash with France on Wednesday, Regragui cast his team as the proverbial good guys in a Hollywood drama. “We have made our people and our continent so happy and proud,” Regragui told reporters. “When you watch Rocky, you want to support Rocky Balboa and I think we are the Rocky of this World Cup. I think now the world is with Morocco.”

But it’s not just feel-good sporting vibes that are driving support for Morocco. On its way to the precipice of a World Cup final, Morocco has defeated a succession of European powers: First Belgium, then cross-strait neighbor Spain and finally Portugal in the quarterfinal. Now, Morocco is set to meet France, which controlled the North African nation as a protectorate for more than four decades in the first half of the 20th century.

For a lot of people from the Middle East, Africa and the broader decolonized world, the Moroccan team is “fighting a symbolic war,” argued Monica Marks, a professor of Middle East politics at New York University’s campus in Abu Dhabi. It’s one that taps into “a lingering sense of insult,” she said, “a collective wound to their pride and history” that rankles to this day.

The mushrooming of support for Morocco has touched on various forms of “Global South” solidarity. There is the Pan-Arab jubilation that has followed the Moroccan team throughout the games in Qatar, underscored by the ubiquitous embrace of the Palestinian flag as an emblem of a broader sense of Arab togetherness and struggle. There is African pride for the continent’s pioneering trailblazers at the World Cup and Amazigh, or Berber, pride felt by those rooted in North Africa’s indigenous traditions and cultures. And there is also a groundswell of Muslim excitement for a squad that habitually kneels in prayer after a match.

The sense of delight at Morocco knocking out Europe’s traditional heavyweights is inescapable. On social media, memes abound of Morocco reviving the 8th century Islamic conquests of old, crossing the Pyrenees after laying low both nations of the Iberian peninsula.

But it’s a fair bit more complicated than that. The global embrace of Morocco as the champions of the post-colonial world has obscured the extent to which Morocco itself engages in an ongoing form of colonialism – its contested occupation of Western Sahara. “Even in moments of sweeping regional and continental ecstatic glee, a glee that has significant anti-colonial resonance, we also have to appreciate that the Moroccan state itself occupies the uncomfortable position of having been colonized but also being a colonizer,” Marks said.

Of course, the Moroccan team is not a reflection of the Moroccan state, as fans worldwide recognize. “If we focus on politics, Morocco is an enemy after choosing Israel as its friend,” Miloud Mohamed, a taxi driver in Algiers, told Voice of America, referring to Morocco’s entry into diplomatic normalization agreements with Israel. “But soccer is not about politics. That’s why I’ve supported Morocco this World Cup.”

Then there’s the roughly 5 million-strong Moroccan diaspora, largely centered in countries in Western Europe. The majority of Morocco’s 26-man squad was born outside of Morocco, mostly in countries like Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium and France. Given where most of Morocco’s stars play, it’s a team of Europe, but not for Europe.

In France, the imminent showdown with Morocco has revived political tensions that have swirled around soccer in the country for more than the past two decades. Far-right French politico Éric Zemmour went on television this week to denounce the French citizens of North African descent who may take to the streets to cheer for Morocco over their home nation. Other far-right and traditional right-wing politicians have cast these celebrations as security threats; there were reports of clashes between revelers and police in various European cities after Morocco’s victories.

The irony is that France’s team itself is a reflection of a multiculturalism that makes the French establishment uncomfortable. The team is largely drawn from African and Arab immigrant communities with connections to France’s former colonies. And over the years, its success has been seen as a valediction of French integration and its failures as an indictment on the “separatist” tendencies of certain minorities. As French striker Karim Benzema famously said, “If I score, I’m French; if I don’t, I’m Arab.”

The current Moroccan and French teams are no strangers to each other. Some of the players on both sides grew up in the same neighborhoods, turn up for the same super clubs and indulge in the same gaudy lifestyles of soccer’s super rich. Their national team affiliations belie a shared context.

France’s political elite still struggle with the concept of hyphenated identities in a country that is institutionally colorblind (though, in practice, not quite). French President Emmanuel Macron, who is set to attend Wednesday’s semifinal in Qatar, even bemoaned the supposed infiltration of American “identity politics” among some of France’s minority communities.

But Rim-Sarah Alouane, a French legal scholar and political commentator of Algerian descent, told me the clash between France and Morocco will showcase a generation of athletes who have further advanced the conversation around identity, no matter what the political class says.

“There’s a generation that is connected to the rest of the world, that is creating its own French identity, composed of multiple cultures,” Alouane said. She added that the Moroccan team, which includes players who could have represented France, “is the crystallization of this hyphenated identity at its peak, a recognition that we live in a globalized world where you can choose the team you want to play for diverse reasons.”

That’s a realization that doesn’t sit well for some. “In right-wing circles, they keep telling you that you don’t belong, that you’re not integrated enough,” Alouane said. “Then, you play in the national team and they warn there are too many Arabs or Black people on the team. Of course, that changes when you win.”

“At a point,” she concluded, “the people who have an issue with identity are not the ones you think.”



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