A postcolonial World Cup showdown for the ages
Seven scholars share their thoughts on today's Morocco-France World Cup semifinal
Morocco’s run through Spain and Portugal to the semifinal of the FIFA World Cup against its France, its former colonial ruler, has been a sensational story on every dimension. Seemingly the whole Global South has rallied behind the first Arab and (not “or”) the first African country to reach this stage of the World Cup. The team’s regular waving of the Palestinian flag has had enormous symbolic impact, galvanizing global attention to the Palestinian issue and directly rebutting the Abraham Accords discourse that nobody cared about Palestine anymore and that normalization between Arab states and Israel no longer required resolving it.
I’ve been especially fascinated by the emergent debates about whether Morocco should be considered Middle Eastern or African (from my transregional perspective, it’s clearly both), and the implications of calling it an Arab country given its large Amizagh population. It’s almost like the online debates about Morocco’s identity triggered by the World Cup were designed to give me a topic for my paper in the “sports and politics” workshop I’m hosting next month; in the meantime, I highly recommend you check my friend Hisham Aidi’s brilliant essay, “The (African) Arab Cup” on those very issues.
To reflect on the many meanings of Morocco’s World cup run, I asked a bunch of my favorite authors who work on or in Morocco for brief reflections. I’m really grateful to all who stepped up to offer their thoughts based on long research and experience with Morocco, France, and the political history of the region.
The symposium kicks off with historical reflections by Jonathan Wyrtzen, the author of the amazing book Making Morocco, as well as Worldmaking in the Long Great War, which I reviewed here a few months ago. Next up is Adria Lawrence, well known for her influential first book looked at Moroccan nationalism and French colonialism, and for her recent work has looked in depth at Moroccan activism. It then presents a haunting contribution on the death at sea of a would-be National Team player by Nabil Ferdaoussi. Paul Silverstein then reflects on the tangled identity issues; he has written extensively on the Maghreb after French colonialism. A short burst of enthusiasm from Aida Alami is next; she’s a freelance journalist based in Morocco who just wrote this great longer piece for the New York Times on the same theme. Amro Ali, an Egyptian sociologist who spent time in Morocco and has written an exquisite series of essays on Mediterranean and Arab identity, focuses on the role(s) of Palestine in the Doha event. Finally, we hear from Christopher Cox, who recently published this great MERIP article on Morocco’s alienated youth and their football ultras.
Thanks to all the contributors for these fascinating and briliant reflections. Read all them after the jump — and then get ready to cheer for the Atlas Lions!
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Jonathan Wyrtzen, Yale University
Beyond the pure joy, drama, and great vibes of the underdog Moroccan team’s unprecedented run in the World Cup, I have to admit it felt like the bracket gods bestowed a gift for those of us who study the history of empire and colonialism and their continuing complicated impacts and legacies entangling North Africa and Europe.
Particularly for those of us who study Morocco, it seems their World Cup path has been scripted. First, in Group F, Morocco beat Belgium, the erstwhile colonial villain in Congo, but also home to a Belgian-Moroccan community of just under 500,000, many of whom migrated from Morocco’s Rif and Souss Amazigh majority areas.
Then, in the elimination bracket, the Atlas Lions’ path seemed fated to maximize the empire and colonial legacies angle. First Spain—evoking the obvious references to the Arab-Amazigh Muslim conquest of and successive empires in Al-Andalus, the Reconquista, the more recent experiences of Anwal and the Rif War, the Spanish protectorate in the northern and Saharan zones, and the present realities of Spain’s Ceuta and Melilla enclaves. Then Portugal in the quarter-finals, which launched its 15th century global imperial expansion with the seizure of a series of key Moroccan Atlantic coast ports, brief inland occupations to Fes and inland from Agadir, and whose King Dom Sebastian was killed at the the Battle of the Three Kings near Ksar El Kebir. And now, finally, France in the semis: the colonial power that absorbed Morocco into its African empire in 1912, imposed its modernizing / traditionalizing protectorate logics for forty years, and which remains enormously influential culturally, economically, and politically in the postcolonial era.
That said, I think the most intriguing thing about this team, the politics of its historic run, and the climactic match against France is not these colonial storylines, but what it reveals about Morocco’s 21st century present and future. The Atlas Lions embody and symbolize the paradoxes, dualities, and seeming contradictions that are at the core of what Morocco is in 2022. They carry both Arab and African banners as the “first” to make it this far; but, though this has not been celebrated, they are equally Amazigh, with many of the team’s starters having roots in the Rif.
Morocco has a population of 37 million in country, and 5 million residents étrangèrs (largely in Europe), and the team is thoroughly domestic and diaspora: 14 players born outside of the country and 12 born in, and the most dramatic goals have been scored both by Madrid-born Achraf Hakimi in penalty shots to down Spain and Fes-born Youssef En-Nesyri’s incredible header against Portugal.
The Moroccan team and its supporters in Qatar are also ardently and visibly pro-Palestinian, while Morocco and Israel officially accelerate normalization and cooperation. Relatedly, they are Pan-Arab / Pro-Palestinian standard bearers, as most of the Arab world—not to mention the U.S., Spain, France and other Western power—effectively accede to Morocco’s position on the occupied, contested Western Sahara. To conclude, and to risk getting sappy: as Morocco takes on France, the Atlas Lions blend diversity, overlaps, juxtapositions, and contradictions into a unified, gutsy, and beautiful team play which has lifted the spirits of millions. This is profoundly Moroccan. Seer, seer, seer Maghrib!
Adria Lawrence (@ALintheMagreb), Johns Hopkins University-SAIS
It’s impossible to overstate the significance of Morocco’s upcoming match against France in the 2022 World Cup. A Moroccan friend, when asked what the advancement to the semifinals means for Moroccans, said, “It means so many things: union, pride in belonging to this nation, self-confidence, trust in Allah, trust in our parents' blessings, hope for a better future ….” The match, against the former colonial power, is not simply a game. It is a moment in which political, national, and athletic aspirations are visible.
When Morocco played in the World Cup in France in 1998, I was living in Morocco. I remember the excitement when Morocco achieved an upset in the first round, defeating Scotland 3-0. Morocco was poised to take second place in its group, but then Norway defeated Brazil and those two teams went on the second round. The disappointment was nation-wide and it was accompanied by a sense that the deck was stacked against Morocco – indeed against any African country. My students in the English courses I was teaching were persuaded that the World Cup was not truly open to the world and that Europeans would somehow never allow an African or Arab country to win. When France played Brazil in the 1999 final, many Moroccans rooted for France in support of the North African players on the French team. Playing for a European team was the route to victory that year.
This year, the Moroccan team’s impressive performance has shown the world that even an underdog facing difficult odds has unknown possibilities and potential. For Moroccans, Africans, and Arabs, that’s a message that resonates. The Moroccan team throughout the competition has maintained its image as a popular team – a team for the regular people of the Middle East and Africa – using their global stage to call attention to the Palestinian cause and to bring their moms onto the field to thank them for their support. Whatever the outcome is in the semi-finals, the Moroccan team’s achievements this year have produced an openness and sense of possibility that is truly historic.
Nabil Ferdaoussi, HUMA-Institute for Humanities in Africa, University of Cape Town
Morocco’s lionhearted run in the World Cup has gathered rip-roaring jubilations. Its historic qualification to semi-finals has been celebrated by Imazighen, Africans, Arabs and diasporic communities alike, heating up long-simmering talks about identity politics and representation. Images of Achraf Hakimi hugging and kissing his mother, and Sofiane Boufal’s mirthful dance with his mother on the field has brought vicarious joy into all Moroccan households. Their heroic victories against Belgium, Spain and Portugal have been praised as a gesture of de-provincializing European Football — and have brought the migratory trajectories of the Atlas Lions and their French-born coach, Walid Regragui, into sharp view.
Less well noted has been that the World Cup final will take place on December 18, celebrated each year as the International Migrants Day. Not all of the Atlas Lions were born to emigrant families; some of them have started their careers in Moroccan local clubs before they joined European clubs, not least Youssef En-Nesyri, Azzedine Ounahi and the goalkeeper Yassine Bono. Yet many aspiring Moroccans could not break the glass ceiling of professional football. Some chose the ‘backway’ to achieve their dream: play in the National team and kiss their mothers and dance with them just as Hakimi and Boufal did.
One of those is Abdessalam Labiad, who went missing as he tried to reach Europe to achieve his football dream. I recently interviewed Hafida Labiad, representative of families of missing migrants and an activist in Morocco’s 20 February Movement, who recounts the odyssey of her brother. The twenty-two-year-old Abdeslam left home with football boots and a jersey in his backpack, along with other sixteen young men from Salé—a coastal town known for its glorious history of corsairs and privateers.
“He started playing football at an early age,” Hadifa told me, “joining a club when he was at the middle school. I took him to the Municipal Institute for Music to join the Royal Guardsmen. He didn’t continue since the schedule conflicted with his football matches. He left Music and embraced football.”
Like many others Abdessalam could not land a place in the Junior National Football that would make them more visible. Rank corruption and nepotism in the football sector barely let his talent shine through, ping-ponging him from one club to another. Before he decided to leave on September 4, 2021, he played in the FAR football club. “His simple dream was to play in the Moroccan National Team. But since he is the son of a mason, they selected another player in his stead,” Hafida said.
Everyone around praised Abdessalam’s football gifts. The dim future of his career at home didn’t put him off. Like so many Moroccans, he switched gears and chased his dream beyond borders. Many of Abdessamad’s friends tried to go through legal channels, but their visa applications have always been rejected. That left embarking on a dangerous sea journey the sole option to leave.
Hafida tried hard to dissuade her brother from leaving, proposing to help him in a start-up project of electronics or cosmetics, an appeal which replicates the border regime logic of “development at home.” But her brother was saving the money he gained in football games for his dream of migration.
The proliferation of the EU’s external borders in North Africa has resulted in the multiplication of dangerous routes taking by migrants trying to enter Europe. The outcome is fatal: more migrants die or go missing along sea and land borders. The heavy striation of the Western Mediterranean Route has driven many Moroccan migrants to take risqué journeys in the Atlantic Sea. Others who enter Algeria to reach Libya are subject to sexual violence, torture, incarceration. More Moroccan migrants opt for the Balkan route, which is no less deadly. Abdessamad set sail from Salé in direction to Cadiz, one of the most dangerous sea routes in the world.
How dangerous? Since 2014, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has counted more than 25,000 migrants to have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean in its Missing Migrants Project (MMP) database. This death count is, of course, an underestimation, as many death cases remain off-record and thus missing. The absence of numbers and data translates into an absence of evidence and, from the official perspective, absence of a problem.
The European Union has primarily been concerned with keeping these migrants out. After a series of diplomatic meetings, the EU decided last August to increase its aid to Morocco for struggle against unauthorized migration by 50%, granting the North African Kingdom €500 million. The EU-Moroccan Migration cooperation has always been dominated by two things: its security focus and its unbalanced reciprocities in outsourcing border control, which are sugar coated as ‘mutually beneficial’ partnerships.
The overriding concern of the EU to keep mobile migrants at bay renders humanitarian obligations to pale into insignificance in its agenda. In the NATO summit held recently in Madrid in June 2022, Spain categorized ‘irregular migration’ as a hybrid, non-military threat coming from its southern flanks comprising North Africa and the Sahel. In response, Spain solicited NATO to deploy ‘non-conventional resources’ to upscale its architecture of border externalization.
In 2018, Objective 8 of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) called on states to “save lives and establish coordinated international efforts on missing migrants”. But this objective remains poorly addressed in North Africa, as highlighted by a recent statement by the UN Migration Network in the latest UN Secretary Report. In the case of Morocco, the GCM review process reveals that “no mechanism has been established to establish the review yet.” And so a security logic prevails, at the expense of those desperate to pursue their dreams.
Amid mounting efforts to criminalize migrant solidarities and search operation conducted by families and borderland activists, Hafida eloquently explained the complex legal, social, economic and psychological issues related to the management of border death and disappearance. She often represents families of missing migrants in public events, and spoke out about their daily battles with traumatic loss and unresolved grief. Missing migrants remain an absent presence to their relatives. Neither alive nor dead missing migrants morph into roving spectres that haunt the living through visceral experience of remembrance. Hadifa reflects: “When someone is dead, you easily forget. But my brother and his friends are unforgettable. A simple act at home, reminds us of him. my mom is haunted by him. Whenever someone passes by with Abdesselam’s height, she takes him for her son.”
Unless they join such solidarity groups, families of missing migrants often become subject to scams by people who pretend to know the whereabouts of their loved ones. Other families are criminalized by state institutions, or blamed for providing financial support to their loved ones. Rather than express solidarity with their loss, on 6 September 2022, the UNHCR’s special envoy in the Western and Central Mediterranean tweeted a statement where he unscrupulously criminalized mothers for their grief activism in Zarzis. In response, members of the Alarmphone solidarity group posted a joint statement to reprimand the UNHCR’s special envoy, calling “on the UNHCR to take action and to dismiss their special envoy or for Mr Cochetel to resign.”
In light of such criminalization and non-assistance, families often resort to their relatives or friends in the diaspora to assist in the search process when migrants go missing. Many families go to fortune-tellers as their last resort. As Hadifa writes, “There are other people who went to fortune-tellers. When noone helps you to find your son, that’s the only resort left. You want to have quick information about their whereabouts. My mom has always dreams about him. We always go to fortune-teller to interpret them. We find that they signify his longivity. I can’t say anything about this. But as long as it relieves my mom, I don’t have a problem.”
Solidarity remains the sole source of hope for families of the missing. It’s a tactical weapon of the weak to effectuate geopolitical change. Grieving families are not passive victims. They mobilize their individual and collective pain to claim truth and justice about their lost ones, as well as condemn militarized global apartheid regimes such as the EU.
A Moroccan Alarmphone member, Hassan Ammari, writes that “the World Cup in Qatar has prompted many to see migration not as a crisis, but a bridge for communion, tolerance and coexistence.”
Abdessalam’s quest for his football dream and the joy brought by the Atlas Lions and other teams with African descent, themselves emigrants in one way or another, prime us to rethink what migration really means and does to people, communities and to our world. Hadifa’s epitaph rings for generations of migrants: “If he is dead, at least we didn’t get into his way to achieve his football dream elsewhere. It’s not a crime to look for a better future elsewhere.”
Paul Silverstein, Reed College
It is hard to not get caught up in the frenzy and attribute world historical significance to the Moroccan football team’s dramatic wins over Spain and Portugal in the knock-out stages of the World Cup. Players and commentators alike signaled them as a victories, alternatively, for “Africans,” “Arabs,” and “Muslims”—many of whom seem to have indeed adopted the Moroccan side as their ow. The team’s unfurling of a Palestinian flag in their on-field celebrations amplified the meme that Palestine had won the World Cup.
Morocco’s semifinal pairing with France has likewise taken on outsized geopolitical dimensions, seemingly pitting the once colonized against its former colonizer, the Global South taking on the Global North, East against West, David versus Goliath. This is of course the magic of the World Cup, of the multi-billion-dollar spectacle produced by FIFA and Qatar: that, at least for a few weeks, we suspend our everyday sense of ourselves and instead identify our dreams with the fortunes of eleven players wearing the colors of some nation-state which we may very well not normally consider our own. For a fleeting moment, at least, we glimpse a world otherwise, and while we know very well that the picture will soon resolve to the hegemonic norm, we perhaps hold out hope that those unexpected turns of fate on the pitch will somehow inspire real-world change.
But the spell may cast deeper than we realize. That Morocco becomes alchemically transmuted into Palestine distracts us from the even more basic illusion that it is “Morocco” which is somehow confronting “Portugal” or “France” in the first place. The World Cup, much like the Olympics, plasters a national logic over a much more complex subnational and transnational reality where identifications between players and spectators with a single nation-state are likely ambivalent at best, if not fundamentally fraught.
Algerian and Palestinian flags are welcome in the Qatar stadia, whereas Amazigh and Sahrawi flags, for instance, would be illegible within—and even threatening to—the national framing of the mega-event. Displays of ethnic identification uncomfortably remind of the arbitrary and tenuous dimensions of the Moroccan national whole and its claims on the Western Sahara, which not even the very real razor wire and naval patrols dividing Morocco from Algeria, France, and Spain (and notably the latter’s cordoned-off African territories of Ceuta and Melilla) can secure.
The compositions of the Moroccan (and French and Portuguese) squad and fan base likewise transcend these policed borders, mapping out living histories of colonialism and migration. As has been widely covered, over half of the Moroccan national team were born or grew up outside the country and cut their footballing teeth in places like Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain, often representing those countries at youth international levels before committing to Morocco. Only three currently play professionally in Morocco, with others plying their trade in countries from the UK to Italy, from Turkey to the Gulf. In interviews they switch not so seamlessly across a handful of cultural and linguistic codes, all of which somehow converge in the lexical plasticity of Moroccan Darija.
Much the same might be said about the French (or Spanish or Portuguese) national side which likewise registers a diversity of genealogies (from Iberia and Africa to the Caribbean and Southeast Asia, including indeed Morocco) and occupational trajectories (with only six of the 25-member French squad currently playing professionally in France). Decisions over which international squad to join tend to be highly idiosyncratic, overdetermined by personal biographies, family influences, and career calculations, with siblings sometimes finding themselves on opposite national sides.
However arbitrary this may appear, players no doubt commit absolutely to achieving victory for their chosen team—much as they do for their professional sides—precisely as the logic of competition dictates. They certainly find themselves in the collective, as a kinship of brothers, fathers (many of whom were also footballers in their day), and especially mothers. But the fact that they must wrap their sporting efforts and family ties in the symbolics of nationhood (from singing the national hymn to discoursing with heads of state) may sit uncomfortably for those players who may very well have a critical perspective on their countries’ imperial histories, racial politics, or authoritarian regimes—or who simply think of themselves first and foremost as professional football players, not representatives of a given nation.
The World Cup calls upon all of us—whether competitors or spectators—to set aside divided loyalties, ambivalent allegiances, and the messiness of belonging. There is something seductive about this invitation and a definite pleasure in the certainty of (peacetime) national identification, however fleeting it may be. And lucky for us FIFA is more than willing to cater to our desire, deploying a massive physical and media infrastructure to sell us a postcolonial melodrama in the form of 22 young men ostensibly representing “France” and “Morocco” and a small, inflatable ball. How could we possibly refuse such powerful magic in which—often in spite of ourselves—we do so very much wish to believe?
Aida Alami, Freelance journalist
There are so many layers of symbolism to this game. Many of our players, and that includes our coach, were French-born and still decided to play for Morocco. Pundits in France are already using this to fuel controversy against their population of north african descent. It will be heart crushing to lose and monumental to win because everybody right now, and not just Moroccans, wants to see an inspiring story of the underdog that rose above expectations and vanquished the giant. (for more from Aida, go read her great piece yesterday in this New York based platform).
Amro Ali, Arab German Young Academy and Free University Berlin
The Palestinian question has become the storm at the World Cup in Doha, the most-watched event in the world, with the Palestinian flag emerging as the dominant icon. The repeated raising of the Palestinian flag following every win by the Moroccan team has become a sort of ritual. Supporters and critics have not failed to take notice.
Many will say but this is just a football tournament, how will it help Palestine? This would be true if symbols and signals had no value in our world. The morale boost it provides to the Palestinians is electrifying. That a country at the far corner of the Arab world can be the closest to the Palestinian people, sending out love and support.
But it also points to something bigger. Doha’s World Cup hosting has become a political laboratory in many respects. With the absence of the usual Arab regime choreography, Doha provided an unfiltered and unmediated space in which the Arab realities toward the Palestinian struggle were exhibited in full force. The repeated pro-Palestine chants by Arab fans, their refusal to do interviews with Israeli reporters on the ground, and the Moroccan team flying the Palestinian flag highlights the severe distortion of the normalization process and the stark contrast between Arab regimes and Arab publics.
In recent years, Arab regimes would state or give the impression that the Arab world was sick of the Palestinian cause and would not stand against peace with Israel on that basis (not that the public ever has a choice), despite poll after poll across the Arab world showing that most people were against mending relations with Israel if it were not conditional upon the end of the brutal Israeli occupation of the Palestinians. But polls can only tell us so much, in contrast to the live coverage of the coming together of that large demographic from across the MENA region descending onto a small space within a fixed time frame that ignited a loud unanticipated noise and coherent narrative. Those voices said that Palestine would not be thrown under the bus.
What Doha did was it provided an unfiltered and unmediated space in which the Arab support of the Palestinian struggle was visually and viscerally exhibited. This World Cup has become a referendum on the normalization facade. The planet’s largest televised event has thrust Palestine dramatically into the spotlight. It seems no regime or public was prepared for that.
Christopher Cox, University of Exeter
This Wednesday Morocco’s Atlas Lions will face reigning champions France in the Qatar 2022 Football World Cup semi-final. To many this still feels unreal, where the team has come so far since their previous campaign in Russia 2018 where they only managed to draw one of their group matches, finishing last in the group and leaving the tournament early on. Morocco’s lightening success comes off the back of intense investment in recent years by Royal Moroccan Football Federation (FMFR) into sporting facilities, youth academies, and training programmes. The team has also benefitted immensely from a calibre of players who play in top-flight European clubs and leagues; Yassine Bouno, who has shown himself to arguably be the best goalkeeper at this tournament, plays for the Spanish La Liga club Sevilla FC, and is currently ranked the best keeper in the league.
The Atlas Lions transnational appeal and support cannot be understated. Not only has it become a beacon across the Arab World and Africa (no Arab team has reached the quarterfinals, nor has an African reached the semis), at a more fundamental level it has galvanised the Moroccan diaspora around the globe. Indeed, several star players like Achraf Hakimi, Hakim Zayich and current captain Romain Saiss belong to this diaspora, having not grown up in Morocco itself.
At home, football represents more than a passion and identity, it is increasingly a venue for socio-political contention. In light of continued top-down autocratic dominance over electoral and political party politics, and civil society, football clubs and their diehard fan associations (often called ‘ultras’) represent a realm still relatively-free of state control. Ultras across Morocco have increasingly become vehicles to vent social, political and economic frustrations, where numerous clashes with authorities have taken place over the past decade. The Atlas Lions’ success could therefore also have an impact on these dynamics.
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