World Cup 2022: Moroccans conquer central London after football team vanquishes Spain
When Achraf Hakimi stepped up to take his penalty, Millie Lahrach couldn't quite believe the ball might hit the back of the net.
At home watching the tension-filled second round World Cup game between Morocco and Spain, Lahrach and her father were both on the edge of their seats. If Hakimi scored, Morocco were through.
Up stepped the Madrid-born defender.
What he did next was almost beyond unbelievable. Hakimi casually chipped the ball down the middle - a Paneka penalty - while the Spanish goalkeeper Unai Simon slumped to his right.
Morocco had won. Khalas. Millie stared at the screen. Her father stared too.
“Ten seconds after Hakimi scored, me and my dad began jumping up and down dancing to music,” Millie told Middle East Eye. “You never know with penalties. They could go in so many directions.”
After a goalless draw played out over extra time, Morocco had beaten Spain on penalties, with goalkeeper Yassine Bounou - known as Bono - saving all three spot kicks as the North African team moved on to the quarter finals.
Unable to contain her joy, Millie knew where every Moroccan and North African in London would be heading after the game: Piccadilly Circus.
Calling her sister, she headed into central London, where hundreds of Moroccan fans had already gathered.
Blasting fireworks and armed with anything that resembled the red of Morocco's flag, Christmas shopping was brought to a standstill as fans of the Atlas Lions engulfed the centre of the British capital.
Morocco is the last remaining African team left in the World Cup and the first North African team to ever reach the quarter finals of the competition.
Singing “Dima Maghreb” - Morocco forever - amidst the smoke of red and orange flares, Moroccans of all ages came together to revel in the joy of beating Spain.
'Spain is our neighbour, and for decades, they have called our people thieves and murderers'
- Millie Lahrach, Moroccan fan
Crowds of young Moroccans danced in the shadow of the Eros statue and the Piccadilly lights, with some taking selfies with the police officers monitoring the celebrations.
Others climbed onto lamposts, while many took to the steps of the Shaftesbury memorial fountain to lead the crowds of people in their chants.
Theatre-goers trying to get into the nearby Criterion theatre looked on in confusion.
Some fans came with Palestine flags, while other North Africans from Algeria and Egypt also joined in.
Many had come from Ladbroke Grove in West London, where most Moroccans in Britain have settled since emigrating to the UK.
Crowding the streets with convoys of red and green, men on Deliveroo bikes and scooters flanked the victory convoy as it headed to Piccadilly Circus from Ladbroke Grove, with cars and bus drivers blasting their horns.
“For us, this victory is personal,” Millie said, wearing a red jacket to symbolise Morocco, as she video called her elderly father to show him the scenes.
“Spain is our neighbour, and for decades, they have called our people thieves and murderers. This win felt personal because we know how badly the Spanish treat our people and look down on us.
“Most of our people [outside of Morocco] are there, and if it were a victory over any other, it wouldn’t have mattered.”
As of January, over 880,000 Moroccans were living in Spain legally, according to Spain’s National Institute of Statistics.
Out of 1,802 hate crimes reported in Spain in 2021, almost 10 percent were targeted against Moroccans, according to Spain’s interior ministry.
In June last year, the racially-motivated murder of a Moroccan immigrant in Murcia sparked anger at growing anti-Muslim and anti-Moroccan attitudes in the country.
Walid, born - like Hakimi - in Spain of Moroccan descent, shared Millie's sentiments.
Wearing the Moroccan jersey over a thick jacket, he sang his heart out with fellow Moroccan fans as they reached Piccadilly Circus station.
“I come from Spain and know what it’s like to be Moroccan there,” said Walid, before shouting at his fellow Moroccans to join his chants on the Bakerloo line.
“But I’m just proud, man. So damn proud of Morocco. My people.”
Crowds stayed in Piccadilly Circus for hours as Moroccans slowly trickled out of the nearby underground stations to join the celebration.
For Imane Ali and her sister Francesca, the win was a moment of pride for the Moroccan diaspora.
“This win has put us on the map,” Ali said. “It feels so damn good to beat a big team like Spain.
“We saw how the pundits underestimated us, but we just knew and believed that Allah had written this win for us.”