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World Cup 2022: For Morocco's football fans, nationality is a fluid concept

Fans says Morocco's success will be built on the talent in its diaspora, with 14 of the 26-man squad in Qatar born overseas
Morocco's players celebrate their win against Belgium at the Qatar World Cup on 27 November 2022 (AFP)
Morocco's players celebrate their win against Belgium at the Qatar World Cup on 27 November 2022 (AFP)
By Austin Bodetti in Rabat

There's a special feeling in the air.

Morocco's red and green flag is flying from cars, football shirts are worn proudly, and there's a genuine optimism that the Atlas Lions can perform strongly at the Qatar World Cup.

Morocco's success on the pitch is rallying fans across the region, bringing about a rare moment of pan-Arab unity.

'As long as you have a blood link to Morocco, you are Moroccan'

Fatima-Ezzahra Hayad, football fan

With fans relishing the on-field magic, Morocco is being cited by some as an example of how countries ranked outside Fifa's top 20 nations can successfully turn to their global diaspora to achieve victory.

Morocco's stand-out player at the tournament, Achraf Hakimi, was born in Spain. Sofiane Boufal, who has been instrumental in their build-up play, hails from France; while the brilliant Hakim Ziyech was born in the Netherlands.

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With more than 130 players at the World Cup representing a country other than that of their birth, the issue of turning to the diaspora isn't specific to the Moroccan national team. 

Star midfielder Wahbi Khazri is among several French-born players in the Tunisia squad; and the US, England, Australia and hosts Qatar have all called in players who were born abroad.

But no team at the tournament has more foreign-born players than Morocco.

Born abroad, bound to Morocco

At the 1998 World Cup in France, Morocco's team featured only two players who were born outside the country. This time around, a staggering 14 players in the 26-man squad were born overseas.

The Moroccans have done nothing wrong when it comes to selecting their players, and a majority of fans Middle East Eye spoke to said the issue wasn't particularly problematic given that the players maintained strong ties to the country.

Ayman El Felyani, a student in Tetouan, a city 220km north of the capital, Rabat, told MEE that he saw nationality as a fluid concept.

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One of his favourite players, the Dutch-born defender Noussair Mazraoui, made his career with European clubs but has Moroccan parents.

"As a Moroccan, I wouldn't care if the players were born on Mars," Felyani said.

Fans' willingness to overlook their national team's heavy reliance on foreign talent may have something to do with the players' multifaceted identities.

Hakimi, a household name in the kingdom, continues to pay tribute to his Moroccan heritage and has repeatedly earned praise from legendary players such as Noureddine Naybet, who have called him a "pride for Morocco and a joy for the country".

Wisal Elkha, a Moroccan expatriate in Italy and longtime Atlas Lions fan, described the national side's recruitment from European clubs as a practical endeavour. 

"Here we know that you find the top clubs in Europe, where there's a chance to play with big players and benefit from them, and the level of football is high as well."

Success over everything

Morocco has a big net of talent to choose from. In 2018, the country's diplomatic missions recorded 4.2 million Moroccans living outside the kingdom, estimated at about 10 percent of its population at the time.

Nonetheless, the diaspora retains close ties to the kingdom. A study in September by the Council of the Moroccan Community Abroad, a government agency, concluded that 61 percent of Moroccans in Europe between the ages of 18 and 35 visit the kingdom every year.

To the Atlas Lions' most dedicated fans, patriotism and the potential for the team's success outweigh the fact of where anyone was born.

'Moroccans appreciate the fact that many of these footballers had the option to play for European national teams but opted to play for their countries of origin instead'

Mohamed Ben Moussa, professor, University of Sharjah

Fatima-Ezzahra Hayad, a marketing professional from Sale, a city in northwestern Morocco, said having a star player like Hakimi in the squad, who is considered one of the best defenders in Europe this season, would energise the team.

"If you are the best in your position, you should be called for the national team," said Hayad, who is at the tournament in Doha. 

"The actual team - especially the players who are binational or have lived their entire lives abroad - are representative of Morocco as long as they have a love for the country and contribute to its success.

"As long as you have a blood link to Morocco, you are Moroccan. Any success of yours or contribution to Morocco would be considered a source of pride."

It was this kind of national pride that inspired Hayad to travel to Qatar, and she isn't alone. Mohamed Sitri, Morocco's ambassador in Doha, claimed in a recent interview with the website Winwin that Moroccans ranked among the top 10 purchasers of World Cup tickets by nationality. 

The diaspora

The presence of Hakimi, Mazraoui and other second-generation immigrants in Morocco's national team points to a trend as old as the World Cup itself: the flow of Moroccan immigrants to Europe.

Said Saddiki, a professor of international relations at Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah University in Fes, said that emigrants from Morocco, like other diasporas from the Maghreb, feel a durable attachment to their homeland.

"This strong relationship appears in major public events such as football matches," he told MEE. 

"An example of this is the riots that take place in Paris or Brussels when a Maghrebi team wins or loses in a big match."

Following Morocco's 2-0 upset win over Belgium, riots broke out in several Belgian and Dutch cities. 

Mohamed Ben Moussa, an associate professor of communications at the University of Sharjah, said ties between the homeland and diaspora were increasingly strong, thanks to frequent travel as well as marriage.

"There is hardly any Moroccan household that does not have a family member or more in the diaspora.

"The national team is seen to represent this fundamental aspect of modern Moroccan identity. In fact, living and succeeding abroad, like these footballers, is a source of additional pride."

Domestic talent

Some Atlas Lions fans argue that Morocco shines when it puts footballers from within its own borders front and centre.

After Morocco appointed the retired Bosnian footballer Vahid Halilhodzic as head coach in 2019, he had a series of bust-ups with key players, including Ziyech and Mazraoui, leading to their absence from the Moroccan squad.

In August, Halilhodzic was replaced with Walid Regragui, a French-born coach with Moroccan roots who used to play for the Atlas Lions and several European clubs.

Almost immediately, Regragui recalled both Ziyech and Mazraoui to the 26-man squad.

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Abderrazak Khettabi, a football fan in Casablanca, questioned the dedication some Moroccan footballers attached to foreign clubs showed to the national side. 

He cited Ziyech and now retired forward Marouane Chamakh as two examples of players who, in his view, didn't wear the shirt proudly.

"There are some players like Ziyech who play extremely well in their club and then, when it comes to the national team, they play as if they're afraid of injuries," said Khettabi. 

"This is something we used to say about Chamakh too, back in the day. Maybe their managers are telling them not to play seriously to avoid injury, because otherwise they might lose their salary in Europe."

Khettabi contrasted Ziyech and Chamakh with retired Moroccan-born players Hussein Ammouta and Jamal Sellami, who he said "poured their hearts into the game".

Ammouta now serves as head coach of Wydad AC, a Casablanca-based club and Khettabi's favourite. 

Building better infrastructure

Fans worry that a lack of investment in the Moroccan domestic league could hinder the search for brights stars in future tournaments.

Felyani, the student in Tetouan, lamented that "many young footballers see their dreams of making it big locally squandered, because of the scarce - or rather total lack of - sporting infrastructure to support these budding talents".

Several years ago, Fifa echoed some of these concerns. Morocco's bid to host the 2026 World Cup fizzled out after a 2018 report raised questions about the suitability of the kingdom's infrastructure and the quality of its facilities for players. The inspectors highlighted stadiums as a particular area of "high risk".

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Today, Moroccans appear eager for their leaders to further the development of football at home. 

A 2022 survey by the Economic, Social and Environmental Council, a Moroccan government agency, found that 60 percent of respondents believed that "policies should target" football.

Morocco has already taken steps to address these concerns, opening the Mohammed VI Football Academy as a new pipeline for domestic talent in 2009 and hosting a "talent development" workshop with Fifa in June.

For this iteration of the World Cup, though, fans plan to support the Atlas Lions as they stand.

"Moroccans appreciate the fact that many of these footballers had the option to play for European national teams but opted to play for their countries of origin instead," Ben Moussa, professor at the University of Sharjah, told MEE. 

"That's the ultimate proof of being a 'true' Moroccan."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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