Moroccan football takes revenge on colonialism

Published December 26th, 2022 - 12:06 GMT
A Moroccan supporter
A Moroccan supporter stands in front of Belgian police officers after Morocco's football team lost the Qatar 2022 World Cup semi-final football match against France, in Brussels on December 14, 2022. The city center of Brussels faced tensions after the football game and clashes between police and some supporters. (Photo by Simon Wohlfahrt / AFP)

The Moroccan national football team became the first Arab African side ever to reach the World Cup semi-finals. Even though they were later beaten by the French, this cannot overshadow Morocco's achievements. Thanks to the Moroccan team's loving attitude as well as their success, they soon won the appreciation of millions around the world, many even considering their success a form of revenge on colonialism. Morocco's surprising semi-final and fighting spirit showed that the tournament was much more than football.

Role of diaspora and Morocco's policy of bringing them back

Out of the 26 players on the Moroccan National Team, 14 of them were born outside of Morocco. In 2014, the Moroccan Football Federation closely followed Moroccan talents who grew up in Europe with the "Bring Back Talents belonging to the Soil" campaign. Since then, Ziyech in 2015, Boufal in 2016, Amrabat in 2017, Mazraoui in 2018, and Hakimi and Haddadi in 2021 chose to play for the Moroccan national team. Coach Walid Regragui also stated that the president of the federation played a "vital" role in their success.

The players that accepted had differing motivations in making their choice. In 2019, Hakim Ziyech said he chose Morocco to follow his heart on the words of his mother and siblings. Likewise, it is known that Sofian Amrabat also preferred Morocco instead of the Netherlands after speaking to his family. Achraf Hakimi has explained that he decided to leave Spain in favor of Morocco to live in the Arab and Moroccan cultures. Considering that the players would have been important additions to the Dutch and Spanish teams had they chosen to stay, it can be argued that many of them had emotional reasons underlying their decision.

However, some chose to play for Morocco for professional reasons. Munir El Haddadi had previously chosen to play for Spain and said he had no regrets. In the UEFA Championship with Sevilla in 2020, he drew criticism from Moroccans by waving the Amazigh flag instead of the Moroccan one. However, Haddadi fell as far as Getafe in his career and turned to Morocco when there was no hope for the Spanish national team. Bayern Munich player Mazraoui, on the other hand, emphasized the importance of making a good choice for a good career, when asked why he chose Morocco as a rising star despite the interest of the Netherlands team. According to some Moroccan journalists, other players chose Morocco to play in the World Cup as they thought they would not have this chance in European teams.

The example of Mesut Ozil in particular suggests that, as an immigrant or child of immigrants, no matter how successful you are, at the very first failure you can be turned into "a scapegoat" due to your origins. Despite being very young and talented, the racist messages Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, and Bukayo Saka received from many British fans for missing a penalty in the last European Championship are fresh in memory. In fact, it was claimed in a study that Moroccan players Amrabat and Ziyech were "othered" by many Dutch people, while Jawad el Yamiq was also subjected to racist attacks in Spain. In short, emotional ties, professional concerns, and the political situation in Europe seem to have played a crucial role in building the Moroccan national team's success. In addition to these, the contributions of Regragui are also worth mentioning. Thanks to the Moroccan coach, Ziyech and Mazraoui wore the national jersey again.

Much more than football

Morocco's success has united the African, Arab, and Muslim worlds. The country got support from as high up as the offices of the Senegalese and Nigerian presidents to the streets of Jerusalem, Gaza, and Baghdad. In Türkiye, the Moroccan victory against Portugal was celebrated as a success against the "colonialists" with chants rising in the air for the North African side.

The Moroccan National Team, too, has different perspectives on the situation. In a press conference before the match with France, coach Regragui said: "We want to make history for Africa, for the Maghreb, as well as for our Algerian, Tunisian and Egyptian brothers." After the match against Spain, Moroccan player Sofian Boufal said the win "belongs to all Moroccans, all Arab peoples, and all Muslims in the world." Moroccans have also received appreciation for celebrating each of their achievements with the Palestinian flag and sincere displays of Islamic worship. All these are seen as a source of self-confidence and optimism. More importantly, they have reacted to the effects of colonial mentalities by clinging to their own values.

Essentially, the tournament revealed a more general Arab solidarity. The Yemenis supported the Saudis despite the war. The Algerians backed the Moroccans despite tensions over the Western Sahara region. Some scholars interpreted this solidarity as the rise of "soft Arabism" in areas such as the media, entertainment, and sports. In contrast to divisions in political "hard" fields, Arab unity can be witnessed in soft areas. Even though research has shown that 88% of Arabs are against the recognition of Israel, their support for Palestine and their backlash to Israeli reporters at the World Cup revealed a truth much more tangible for politicians and, indeed, for everyone else: Although statesmen are inclined to so-called "normalization" with Israel, Arab peoples have not been dragged along with them. As Ramzy Baroud writes, for Arabs, Israel "represents a history of western imperialism and colonialism, military occupation, racism, violence..." Therefore, the success of the Moroccan national team, from squad building to their behavior during matches and afterward, can be interpreted as the reflection of a mentality against imperialism and colonialism.

Mehmet Rakipoglu is a research assistant at Sakarya University's Middle East Institute. Omer Ekrem Kececi is an independent researcher 

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