Brussels, Belgium – On a warm, blue-skied Sunday afternoon, Aït Ahmed Abdelouhad, 46, was kicking a football around a small concrete football field with his eight-year-old son.
Nearby, teenagers ran across a basketball court while others zoomed by on skateboards and families played table tennis in the park in the neighbourhood of Saint Gilles.
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Abdelouhad, a sanitation worker with the local municipality, came to Belgium in 2005 from the Moroccan capital Rabat.
On November 27, his country of origin and the country he now calls home will face each other at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Abdelouhad, who was wearing track pants and a cap, was unequivocal about which team he will support. “Morocco, of course, my country,” he said.
But if Morocco gets knocked out, he’ll support Belgium. “They play well. They have good players,” he said, referring to footballers like Manchester City superstar Kevin De Bruyne, considered one of the best midfielders of his generation. He’s also a fan of Argentina.
Abdelouhad said it was natural that he would support the Red Devils. “This country has given me a lot,” he said, smiling, a band on one wrist saying Belgium. “I’m happy, I have a job. My son is at school with his friends.”
Nearly 20 percent of Belgium’s more than 11.5 million people are of foreign origin, with roughly 500,000 people of Moroccan descent, constituting the country’s largest non-European Union population and one of the largest Moroccan diasporas.
For people in Belgium with identities linked to both countries, the choice of which team to support is not always an easy one and for some, it seems less about picking a side than the order in which to support the two national teams.
‘If Belgium wins I won’t be completely gutted’
In another park nearby, Nassim Chouirfa, a 26-year-old software engineer, was sitting with two leaders from a local Muslim scouts group and 10 kindergarten-aged children, all dressed in matching khaki jackets and blue and white scarves.
Chouirfa, who was born in Brussels, lives in Molenbeek, a vibrant multicultural, inner-city neighbourhood home to a sizeable Moroccan-origin population. He’s still nursing heartbreak after Portugal knocked Morocco out of Russia’s 2018 World Cup during the tournament’s group stage. “[Cristiano] Ronaldo is my favourite player and he destroyed Morocco,” he said.
Although Belgium is the country he knows best, Chouirfa said he’ll support Morocco because that is where his parents are from and it is this heritage that he feels more connected to, especially when it comes to food, traditions and culture. But if the Atlas Lions, 22 in the FIFA rankings, lose their matches, he will support the Red Devils, ranked second.
A short stroll away, teenagers were setting off little firecrackers near an “agora”, one of the small outdoor, fenced football pitches found around the city.
Sumaya Riane, a slight 23-year-old with braces and a teal-coloured headscarf, walked by carrying a bag of chocolates and flowers with three girlfriends after a brunch to celebrate her upcoming marriage.
She was excited about the looming match between the two nations that are most important to her. Like Chouirfa, she was born in Belgium but plans to support her country of origin. “If Belgium wins I won’t be completely gutted,” she said, as her friends joked about preferring certain of the teams’ players for their looks over how they play.
Mohamed, who only wanted to give his first name, was in the agora shooting penalties with some teenagers from the neighbourhood. He hopes both teams will progress, adding that it’s the last chance for Belgium’s golden generation with players like De Bruyne, Eden Hazard – the Belgian captain, and Romelu Lukaku, to make football history. The team have yet to claim silverware, having been knocked out by France in the 2018 semi-finals, and by Argentina in the 2014 quarter-finals.
“It would be a shame if they don’t win it,” said the 25-year-old secondary school maths teacher. “It would be great to see Kevin De Bruyne get the cup.”
Fatima Zibouh is a civil society activist whose work and sociological research focus on inclusion and tackling discrimination against minorities. She was born, raised and lives in Molenbeek, where she is the president of a youth centre.
She described the Moroccan diaspora in Belgium as diverse. “It’s not homogeneous, it’s not monolithic,” Zibouh explained.
The diaspora has been shaped by different stages of migration. A 1964 bilateral labour agreement between the two governments led to the first big wave of mostly young men who came from northern Morocco to work in Belgium’s coal mines and later its steel and car sectors, then the country’s primary industries, according to Nadia Fadil, an associate professor in anthropology at KU Leuven who researches North African diasporas in Western Europe.
Across 10 years, about 25,000 Moroccans arrived, until labour migration was halted in 1974. After that, Moroccan students could come to Belgium on visas linked to study while wives and children were able to join the men on the grounds of family unification. Not much is known about the Moroccan communities from the period until 1974, Fadil said, although cultural contributions like mosques had already started to appear.
With the arrival of families, Moroccan migrant communities took root wherever there was work, said Fadil. Families established themselves in cities like Liege in the south where there were coalmines, in Brussels, around the canal in neighbourhoods like Molenbeek where there were smaller industries, and in the northern Flemish-speaking port city of Antwerp.
In 2008 and 2009, younger but also older migrant Moroccan workers, many of them undocumented, came to Belgium from Spain and Italy – along with many nationals from those countries – which were harder hit by the financial crisis. Moroccans had previously followed work opportunities in those countries in sectors like agriculture. In Belgium, they entered the agriculture, hospitality, cleaning and construction industries.
More recent arrivals often face precarity, including living below the poverty threshold and being undocumented, according to Fadil. In 2021, undocumented migrant workers, many of whom are Moroccan, went on a hunger strike to demand the right to live and work in Belgium.
Today, the diaspora represents a range of socioeconomic backgrounds – from business owners to lawyers, teachers and undocumented workers – but the majority are working-class, she explained.
Picking a side
Zibouh offers the term “Belgo-Moroccan” to describe people of Moroccan origin in Belgium. This has nothing to do with your passport, she said: “It’s a feeling of belonging,” and is marked by degrees of belonging to both identities.
Choosing a football team comes down to where one feels a greater sense of belonging, the 41-year-old suggested, and this differs even between two people who share the same background.
Zibouh, herself a third-generation Belgian citizen of Moroccan origin, polled her family over WhatsApp about who they will support. “One [sister] said Morocco, the other one said Belgium. My father said both,” she said. His words were: “C’est kifkif,” French, then Maghrebi Arabic for, “It’s the same.”
An avid football fan, she plans to watch the match with her family. “It’s a party for us,” she said, showing pictures on her phone of boisterous family gatherings during the last World Cup. In one she wears a garland in the colours of the Belgian flag while celebrating a Red Devils victory in the city centre.
Although picking a side is difficult, “I have more connection with Belgium,” Zibouh concluded. If Belgium is knocked out, she echoes what her sister told her: “We have the privilege to be happy if Belgium wins [or] if Morocco wins.”
In the 2018 World Cup, two players of Moroccan origin led Belgium to a decisive victory in a nail-biting match against Japan to advance to the quarter-finals.
In this tournament, Belgium has no players of Moroccan heritage in its squad. Morocco has several players born in Belgium. Eighteen-year-old Bilal el Khannouss, born in a Brussels suburb and a native of the Belgian capital, plays for the football club KRC Genk under-18 division in the country’s northern region of Flanders. He was asked to play for the Belgian national team but has said he chose Morocco as he wanted to make his “grandparents proud“.
When it comes to fans picking a national team, how people self-identify is key, according to Fadil.
“I know quite a lot of people who also in their identification, the way they see themselves, would use the term ‘Belgian Moroccan’ or even just Moroccan even if they’re a second or third generation,” she said.
“If they say I’ll support both, it’s an expression of the dual identities,” Fadil added.
Identity, she suggested, is also more fluid in a country like Belgium, composed of the French-speaking south and the Flemish-speaking north, and where national unity is something “exceptional”.
“People put all kinds of things in Belgianness,” Fadil explained.
“I think Belgium, in difference to France, is not a thick nation-state. It’s a very thin nation-state, which also allows people to have these kinds of hyphenated identities.”
Back on the football pitch, Abdelouhad, the municipality worker, said he just hopes that the day of the match will go smoothly.
In 2017, when Morocco beat Ivory Coast 2-0 in a World Cup qualifying match, street celebrations in Brussels turned into riots in which shops were looted and windows smashed.
He worries about any trouble that could stigmatise people of Moroccan background.
Discrimination against people of Moroccan heritage persists in areas such as employment and housing.
A study published in 2021, for example, found that potential tenants with Moroccan-sounding names were 28 percent less likely to be called back to visit a property.
Belgian government socioeconomic monitoring statistics from 2019 that Zibouh cited indicate that while the labour market situation has improved for people of Maghrebi origin, their chances of finding a job remain lower than the national average.
“Moroccans have become this kind of, you could say, go-to kind of figure when it comes to racism and othering,” Fadil explained.
She said this stigmatisation and stereotypes of urban delinquency go back to migration and multiculturalism debates from the 1980s and 1990s where rhetoric revolved around immigrant communities as not deserving of social welfare.
“I really hope that there won’t be any problems,” Abdelouhad said, turning to head an orange football back to a boy in a grey hoodie. “Football is about having fun, getting along, understanding each other.”
His favourite player in the Moroccan national team is Netherlands-born Chelsea winger Hakim Ziyech, who overcame difficult teenage years after the loss of his father when he was 10 years old to become a top footballer. Ziyech’s story has a message for others, believes Abdelouhad. “You never let go,” he explained, as he headed off to his weekly Sunday football match with friends.
How can I choose?
Across the city and over the canal in Molenbeek, it was early evening as people walked down a busy street packed with grocery, fashion and pastry shops.
Aya Hami, 19, a student who juggles studying with working in a restaurant, a retirement home and as a boxing coach, walked by wearing big headphones. When asked which team she will support, she sighed. It’s a tough decision between her country of origin and her birthplace. “It’s hard to choose,” she said, before deciding she will support lower-ranked Morocco which she thinks has a promising lineup. “They are kind of the underdog.”
Inside Le Fair Play Molenbeekois, a sport café on a street corner, men were sitting at tables drinking tea and coffee. A television screen aired a Premier League match between Manchester United and Fulham and pictures of local football players decorated the walls.
Mohamed Akkouh, 36, a Moroccan living and working in Brussels, who was dressed in a red hoodie and drinking a coffee, planned to watch the Belgium vs Morocco game at the café. For him, there was no “clear-cut choice” about who to support. Instead, Akkouh, who plays football with friends and does kickboxing, said he is interested in how the teams play and strategise. “The team that plays the best I’m going to go for,” he said. “I’m going to enjoy the game as it is.”
Ben Ali Abdelmalik, 54, a heavy vehicle driver who came to Belgium in 1991, sat with three friends at an adjacent table. “Belgium and Morocco are the same thing,” he said. “Morocco is the mother, Belgium is the wife. You can’t choose.”
They will be on the streets celebrating whoever wins, he said. “If we draw we win everything. It’s perfect. It’s a win-win situation.”
Zibouh also hopes for a draw. “A lot of people say: How can I choose between my father and my mother?”