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World Cup 2022: Morocco's dream run wins support in regional rival Algeria

Despite decades of diplomatic tensions, many Algerians will be supporting the Atlas Lions in their shot at World Cup glory
Morocco fans cheer during their country's World Cup quarter-final match against Portugal at Al Thumama Stadium in Doha, on 10 December 2022 (Associated Press)
By Djamila Ould Khettab in Algiers, Algeria

Regional rivalries are being set aside as Morocco continues its epic giant-killing run at the Qatar World Cup.

The Atlas Lions have emerged as the story of the tournament, and whatever happens over the course of 90 minutes at Al Bayt Stadium on Wednesday, they will have the whole of Africa and the Arabic-speaking world cheering them on when they square up against defending champions France.

Up until a few weeks ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find public support for the Moroccan team in its neighbour and geopolitical rival, Algeria. But after dispatching three tournament favourites in Belgium, Spain and Portugal, the Atlas Lions have gone from outsiders to underdogs - and now contenders.

Many ordinary Algerians have cheered their neighbour's success in a genuine spirit of North African solidarity, despite the countries having severed diplomatic relations in August 2021.

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"We used to be a single people. Despite the old political disputes, both populations have remained closed to each other," Mehdi, a 44-year-old entrepreneur who has a personal connection to Morocco, told Middle East Eye.

The two countries differ most bitterly over the disputed territory of Western Sahara, seen by Morocco as its own but where Algeria backs an armed independence movement.

There have been other disputes too, including over Morocco's normalisation of ties with Israel and allegations of spying. This year there were even arguments over the design of an Algerian football shirt.

With Morocco now due to play France, the former colonial power that ruled both countries and is home to hundreds of thousands of people claiming North African heritage, the stakes for North African football fans have risen once more.

For Nadia, a 45-year-old doctor who lives in Algiers, it was "natural" to throw her support behind the Atlas Lions.

"It was so obvious to me as a North African person to endorse each African team playing at the World Cup, especially Morocco, our neighbour," Nadia, a 45-year-old doctor, who lives in Algiers, told MEE.

'Berber brothers'

After years of icy relations and a long, difficult history marked by recriminations, Algeria's government, however, has ignored Morocco's football exploits, with television channels even censoring some of the team's victories.

As other Arab and African countries have offered formal congratulations, Algeria's government, which broke off ties with Rabat in 2021 after years of worsening relations, has been notably silent.

But in a surprising sign of camaraderie, the Algerian national team, who narrowly missed out on qualification, has congratulated their Moroccan rivals.

"I am delighted for them," star player Riyad Mahrez told UAE outlet, The National. 

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Slimane, a 74-year-old former local councillor living in Kabylie, told MEE that cheering for the Moroccan national team made "perfect sense".

"Morocco is our torchbearer in this tournament. I shed tears of joy at the end of the game against Portugal. We are more than neighbours, we are Berber brothers," he added.

Morocco's performances have won praise from Palestinians since the players and many of their supporters expressed solidarity on and off the field with their plight during the World Cup.

Palestinian flags have featured regularly among Morocco's supporters and some of the players unfurled Palestinian flags on the field after they defeated Spain in the quarter-finals.

While France is heavily favoured to win in Wednesday's clash, the Moroccan team has managed to defy the odds.

The Atlas Lions' defence has been virtually watertight, conceding only once - an own goal against Canada - in their five matches, but on Wednesday will have to contend with the tournament's leading scorer Kylian Mbappe along with Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann, who was in sublime form in Les Bleus quarter-final win over England.

For Slimane, whatever the outcome of the game, in his eyes Morocco had already made history.

"The Moroccan players have a date with destiny against France to reach the final, but they have already become sporting icons and legends," he added.

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