Every World Cup has one team that defies the odds and makes it further than the majority expected it to.
At Qatar 2022, it has been Morocco, a force to be reckoned with. The Atlas Lions take on world champions France on Wednesday.
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Off the field, the issue of French colonial history makes the match especially meaningful – France ruled over the North African country for 40 years in the 20th century.
Part of the proliferating support for the football team spanning borders and continents can be attributed to their underdog status, which the team’s coach Walid Regragui is all too aware of.
“When you watch Rocky, you want to support Rocky Balboa and I think we are the Rocky of this World Cup,” he told reporters, referring to Hollywood actor Sylvester Stallone’s seminal boxer role in the film.
“I think now the world is with Morocco.”
Morocco finished top of their group with wins over Belgium and Canada. They saw off Spain and Portugal and made history by becoming the first African and Arab country to trailblaze their way to the World Cup semi-finals.
“For decades, African teams have been criticised for not being good or disciplined enough, but this tournament shows that Africa has truly arrived,” sports journalist Oluwashina Okeleji told Al Jazeera.
Armed with a cast of brilliant players and coaching staff, Morocco has “given life to the overlooked and disrespected underdogs, and fans love this feel-good story”, he added.
The team’s fairytale run to the last four has resulted in widespread and unanimous support from the Global South that has enraptured the hearts of millions, and not just football fans.
For Africans, the success of Morocco is a triumph for the whole continent and has also shone a spotlight on some of the players’ indigenous Amazigh roots and cultures.
“There is a general sense of joy, fulfilment and happiness about how the Atlas Lions are roaring to success and making the continent proud at the World Cup,” Okeleji said. “For the majority in sub-Saharan nations, Morocco’s achievement is for the continent and they’re basking in it. Fans in Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa and elsewhere believe they can even go all the way and surprise France.”
Part of an extended family
For Muslims, the open display of faith such as reciting al-Fatiha before the start of matches [and penalty shootouts] and prostrating themselves in prayer after has rendered the players closer to millions of people’s hearts.
And the rare public expression of pan-Arabism in this tournament, thanks to the Palestine flag as a unifying cause, was capitalised in the celebrations of the Moroccan team over Spain and Portugal.
“They are an incredible team. The photos of them praying together, listening to music together… it’s like being part of an extended family and everyone can feel part of it,” said Donia, an Egyptian-Algerian Frenchwoman.
“It really is amazing to watch everyone coming together and supporting them because I think all of us are kind of fed up with this whole European hegemony ruling over football. An African team with an African coach can go that far, and can eliminate all those amazing teams.”
Uniting people is one of the many positive aspects about sports, but Morocco’s progress was not all about football.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the photos and videos of people celebrating in Gaza, in Cairo, and elsewhere,” Donia said. “It says so much about our current situation, our aspirations for the people in the region.”
I am with Morocco even if i was not born Moroccan. For many reasons. It is not like any country, you take for granted as a country you are from. Morocco offered me home, as a Palestinian refugee. It offered us protection (a family of five Palestinian refugees).
— مزنة الشهابي (@MuznaShihabi) December 12, 2022
For Muzna Shihabi, a Palestinian refugee who grew up in Morocco but is now based in France, the Atlas Lions have given people from the south the power to believe in themselves.
“The fact that the Moroccan coach is not ‘imported’ means a lot. It means we can [do] without their ‘expertise’ and this unites people from Africa and the Arab world against this whole Western ideology that views us as children of a lesser God,” she said.
“I would also say that the Global South feels so connected to the family bonding when they see pictures of Moroccan players celebrating with a mother that looks a lot like many mothers from this region, versus the individualist Western lifestyle.”
Fourteen out of 26 in the squad were born outside Morocco. But the camaraderie amongst the players – from Yassine Bounou’s dancing, to Zakaria Aboukhlal and Abdelhamid Sabiri’s friendship – witnessed through social media has shown the team to be tight-knit and likeable.
For Islam, a Moroccan lawyer based in Paris, what the national team has achieved has left many of her compatriots feeling that their pride and dignity has been restored.
“We are essentially proud of our team, players, coach, and country in general, but pleased to witness heartfelt support from all around the world, particularly from Palestine, Algeria, or Senegal,” she said.
“This confirms that an inextricable bond will always unite Arab, African and Muslim people, despite political discrepancies, and that Morocco is the binding agent thanks to the multiple languages, cultures and religions the country encapsulates.”
Islam pointed out that for Arabs, Africans and Asians living in the West, their successes are always met with scepticism, which she attributed to a colonial heritage that leaves an “indelible bias” against second-class citizens.
“To this day, most of my French colleagues argue that Morocco’s winning streak is a stroke of good fortune and that they will not stand a chance against France,” she said.
“A historical performance acclaimed by all Africans, Arabs and Muslims is still diminished and underestimated by the West. Thankfully, the Moroccan team did not ask for permission and is not expecting approval from the West for any of their spectacular accomplishments.”