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World Cup 2022: Morocco win over South American hearts with heroic displays

The Atlas Lions are winning hearts through their spirited displays on the pitch, but also the very public affection they have shown their families after their victories
Morocco fans pose with the World Cup trophy at the Al Thumama Stadium in Doha on 10 December 2022 (AFP)
By Eduardo Campos Lima in Sao Paulo, Brazil

When Morocco take to the field on Wednesday in their World Cup semi-final clash against France, they won't just have an entire nation behind them, but a legion of fans across South America.

Their tenacious performances and heart-warming antics have made them a smash hit throughout much of the continent.

Playing with a defensive grit and an attacking verve, Morocco's Cinderella run has embodied a fighting spirit, which is fitting considering head coach Walid Regragui has called his team "the Rocky Balboa of this World Cup".

"People want to see something different. The fact that an African team has made it to the semi-finals for the first time has excited many," Soufiane El-Guenag, a Moroccan-born language teacher who lives in the Mexican city of Veracruz told Middle East Eye.

I am sure that most Mexicans will root for the Moroccans if we are able to defeat France and make it to the finals against Argentina

Soufiane El-Guenag, Moroccan in Mexico

According to Guenag, there are only three other Moroccans in Veracruz and no more than 500 across the country, but in Wednesday's David v Goliath match, the Atlas Lions will be cheered on by millions in South America and beyond.

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"I received several messages from people congratulating me for Morocco's success. I am sure that most Mexicans will root for the Moroccans if we are able to defeat France and make it to the finals against Argentina," he told MEE.

He added that most of the country's Lebanese-Mexicans, who number around 500,000, were rooting for the North African nation. One of the reasons, he said, was due to the way the players celebrated their success with their families.

Videos of forward Sofiane Boufal dancing with his mother and Paris Saint Germain defender Achraf Hakimi giving his mum a kiss on the cheek have garnered global adulation.

"People saw the Moroccans kissing and dancing with their mothers and that has touched their hearts. The love for the family is something that moves everybody, especially in Latin America," Guenag said.

We're all Moroccans now

Morocco have also found new support for dispatching three tournament favourites in Belgium, Spain and Portugal.

Abderrahman Agdaou, a Muslim leader in El Salvador, told MEE that after Spain hammered Costa Rica 7-0, Morocco were the team of choice on the continent when they squared off against Spain.

"The community is all Moroccan now," he said.

On the streets of the nation's capital San Salvador most street vendors were still selling the kits of Argentina and Brazil, but support for Morocco was growing.

'I am very happy that the Moroccans are showing solidarity to Palestine. But it has a bittersweet feeling for me, given the situation in Western Sahara'

Carlos Medina Lahsen, historian

"People must now realise that we [Morocco] are an international footballing power, with most [of our] athletes playing in European clubs. Like the Latin American countries, we have been colonised. We trusted in our capacities, and we are advancing," Agdaou said.

He recalled the important role played by the late Brazilian football manager Jose Faria, who headed the Moroccan team in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.

That squad advanced to the knockout stage - which was a first for African and Arab nation. "Faria brought the beauty of Brazilian football to Morocco, and we owe him much."

Agdaou added that following the success of the Moroccan team, many in the region were interested in learning more about the country's Mohammed VI Football Academy and whether it played a part in the team's success.

"The other day, the brother of El Salvador's president [Nayib Bukele] asked me how a third-world country could domestically develop football with so much strength," Agdaou said.

"El Salvador would like to follow the Moroccan example."

The Palestinian cause

The Palestinian flag has been a ubiquitous presence at this year's World Cup with regional fans seeking to bring attention to Israel's 74-year occupation.

Following the 1-0 win against Portugal, the Moroccan team yet again brought the Palestinian cause to the pitch as the players gathered in celebration. 

Solidarity has been expressed in other forms, too. Fans of one of Morocco's domestic football teams, Raja Casablanca, brought the Rajawi chant to the World Cup, which is dedicated to the Palestinian people.

In the match between France and Tunisia, days after a pitch invader disrupted the game with a LGBTQ pride flag, a fan did the same with the Palestinian flag.

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"Manifesting support to the Palestinian people corresponds to remembering the oppressed peoples of the world," Brazilian cleric Sheikh Rodrigo Jalloul told MEE.

"The Palestine cause will never be forgotten by Muslims."

In Chile, which has an estimated population of 500,000 Palestinian Chileans, many were rooting for Morocco, said football historian Carlos Medina Lahsen. 

Lahsen worked on a documentary film a few years ago about the story of Club Deportivo Palestino, founded by the community in 1920. In 2014, Palestino included on its jersey the pre-partition map of Palestine, replacing the number 1 with it.

The move sparked controversy but elevated the Palestine cause.

"I am very happy that the Moroccans are showing solidarity to Palestine. But it has a bittersweet feeling for me, given that the situation in Morocco concerning Western Sahara is similar to what happens in Israel," he said, mentioning the disputed territory which is partially controlled by the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

"But one should differentiate between the Moroccan government's actions and the people. The pro-Palestine publicity carried out by the Moroccans during the World Cup is forcing the media to show the Palestine flag – something that is usually avoided by the press," he added.

Divided hearts in Argentina

Despite their shocking 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia, oddsmakers aren't discounting Argentina's chances of lifting the World Cup.

Superstar Lionel Messi is thriving off the responsibility of creating a fairytale World Cup swansong, and has been in superb form in what will likely be his last international tournament.

To usurp the late Diego Maradona as the greatest ever Argentine player, Messi must lead the team to two more victories in the same way Maradona steered the Albiceleste to glory at the 1986 World Cup.

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Mohammed Bennis, a Moroccan-born Argentinian who moved to the South American nation with his wife 26 years ago, said if Morocco and Argentina were to square off in the final he wouldn't be upset if the great Messi walked away with the winners' medal.

“Of course, I am rooting for Morocco but if we are defeated by Argentina it won't be painful."

Enchanted by Maradona's talent, Bennis supported Argentina well before moving to Buenos Aires, but is now enthralled by Morocco's sterling performances.

"Other Arab-Argentinians are supporting us, and the Muslim community is very excited. But it is not only them. Argentinians in my building have congratulated me, as well as the parents of my children's colleagues at school,” Bennis said.

He added that Argentinians could also rally behind Morocco if the North African team gets to the final and Argentina fails to edge past Croatia.

"I have seen people including the Moroccan flag in their social media accounts," he said.

DJ Rafael Foxx (second from left) has heavily promoted Moroccan football and culture in his music (Courtesy of Rafael Foxx)
DJ Rafael Foxx (second from left) has heavily promoted Moroccan football and culture in his music (Courtesy of Rafael Foxx)

Baile de Marrocos

Following Brazil's shock exit against Croatia, many fans had said they couldn't dare to see either Messi's Argentina or rivals France lift the trophy and had since shifted their support to Morocco.

"Nobody wants to see Argentina or France win. The path that Morocco has been following is motivating many people in Brazil," DJ Rafael Foxx told MEE.

A resident of Vila Kennedy, a favela in Rio de Janeiro, Foxx was one of the creators of Baile de Marrocos (Morocco Party) in 2017.

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Emerging from Rio De Janeiro's favelas in the mid-1980s and derived from Miami bass and rap, the musical events attract thousands of people from all over Brazil, especially in larger cities like Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.

Many of Rio's Bailes carry the name of the avenues where they happen. In Vila Kennedy, most streets have names of countries, and the major avenue is Morocco. "So, we had the idea to call the baile 'Marrocos'," he told MEE.

Baile de Marrocos began to grow and draw many people. Foxx and the other DJs started to wear the Moroccan football jersey and included Arab musical elements in their mashups. 

"As it became famous, I began to receive messages from Moroccans, who were curious about our baile," Foxx recalled, saying that he had to use online translators to understand what people were saying in Arabic.

After Morocco's last win, more than 7,000 people gathered to celebrate, some of whom were wearing Moroccan jerseys.

"I am glad that we have been incentivising Brazilians to root for Morocco," Foxx said.

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