When Morocco's Youssef En-Nesyri out-jumped the Portugal keeper Diogo Costa to head the ball precisely in the 44th minute of the World Cup quarter-finals, he was not only netting the winner for his team but also creating history for the entire continent. Clinging on to that lead, the Atlas Lions sent Cristiano Ronaldo and his teammates packing to book the seat in the semi-finals for the first time for an African or Arab nation. (It should be noted that there was another World Cup record for En-Nesyri ‘s taking when he leaped 2.78 metres to head the ball.) As the English commentator rightly said, it was a “towering header and a mountainous moment for his nation”, picking up and sprinting forward from where the fellow African nations Cameroon and Senegal left the baton, the quarter-finals.
Incidentally, Morocco was the first African team to break the jinx and set the stage for Africa by entering the knockout stage in 1986. Cameroon carried forward the legacy in the next edition, entering the quarter-finals but could not advance further. Senegal and Ghana, too, failed to survive the tight round-of-eight matches in 2002 and 2010, and it was again the Mediterranean nations’ turn to hold their heads high as Africans and Arabs as well.
This dream run by this Moroccan team has much more significance than it appears, given that more than half of their players are from the Moroccan diasporic community. Fourteen out of the 26 players in the squad were born outside the country, giving this team an eclectic character reflective of immigrant communities of European countries.
Sofyan Amrabat, the midfield powerhouse of the team, and Sofiane Boufal, the left-winger, share a common first name but it is spelt differently because the former was born in the Netherlands and the latter in France. Achraf Hakimi, one of the superstars of the French football club Paris Saint-Germain, is the son of a housemaid and street vendor who migrated to Spanish capital Madrid for a better life. The Chelsea midfielder Hakim Ziyech had the opportunity to play for the Netherlands as well before he chose his motherland Morocco, and so did the Amrabat brothers, Sofyan and Nordin. Yassine Bounou, their goalkeeper who is yet to concede to an opposition goal, has Canadian citizenship. Even their coach, Walid Regragui, was a former foreign-born Moroccan player, holding a French passport.
This diasporic representation in the Moroccan team, in a way, paints a picture of the political reality of the region as well. Migration and reverse migration have been well-reflected in the identity of football teams, especially from the African region. According to Fifa statistics, there are 136 players representing the teams other than their birth countries in this World Cup. Of the lot, Morocco is the biggest beneficiary of reverse migration. The players who have exposure to the well-structured football training facilities and professional clubs of Europe add definite teeth to the African teams. Furthermore, children of African migrants in Europe who graduate through their footballing system may not make the cut in their country of birth, so many of them choose their country of origin for national selection. For the past two decades, teams like Morocco have been scouting among the diaspora in Europe to find talent, and it has reflected well in their recent performance.
Morocco's headway at the tournament has brought the Arab population across continents together. The entire Arab world is rooting for Morocco and hopes that it will make history by beating France in the semi-finals.
Since 1934, nine Arab countries have qualified for the world cup final rounds, including this year’s hosts, Qatar. Only two countries other than this Moroccan side were able to further it to the next rounds. Some of these teams did not win a single match, whereas Morocco has already won 13. These figures may aid in comprehending the magnitude of achievement not only for the Moroccan team but also for all Arab nations. Their post-match prayers might also have caught the imagination of Muslim-majority nations.
Many Arab rulers and senior ministers have sent congratulatory messages to Morocco's team. Their historic run will undoubtedly inspire many teams in the Arab world to take the game much more seriously. Saudi Arabia, who upset Lionel Messi’s Argentina in their opening match, have already gone a long way in this direction. They already have Herve Renard as head coach, who managed the Moroccan team in the previous edition of the World Cup.
Qatar, who had played the tournament without much success, also will be eyeing to set up better facilities for their national contingent next time. The UAE players who got an opportunity to rub shoulders with the likes of Messi and Angel Di Maria in a pre-tournament friendly match with Argentina, too, will not be the same set of footballers they were.
The history of the Moroccan national team, which is controlled by the Royal Moroccan Football Federation, dates back to the independence of the country. Even before, when they were divided as protectorates of France and Spain, there were matches played involving the unofficial national team. In 1954, a united Maghreb team defeated France 3-2 in a benefit match for earthquake victims and their families. By the late 1970s, they had established themselves as a formidable African team, winning the Nations Cup in 1976. They maintained this form for the next decade, finishing in the top four in three of the next four tournaments before making history by reaching the World Cup knockout round in 1986.
After 1998 they failed to qualify for the World Cup until 2018, when they bowed out in the first round from a “group of death” that included Spain, Portugal and Iran.
So far, in this edition of the tournament, they have not conceded a single goal by the opponents barring their own-goal against Canada, a match which they won comfortably. Goalkeeper Bounou, who stopped two Spanish spot kicks in the pre-quarter shootout, has been on the form of his life. Coach Regragui’s tactics are mainly anchored by the tenacious defence and fierce counterattacks. The speed of Moroccan forwards, including En-Nesyri and Boufal, has already taken the opponents by surprise, and the defensive line led by captain Saiss and Achraf Hakimi is as solid as it can be. The Moroccan team’s display of classic low block defending off the ball, employing all its players in their lower third, has paid off well for them. When they meet France at Al Bayt Stadium on Wednesday, all eyes will be on the potential battle in the wings between Paris Saint-Germain teammates Kylian Mbappe and Achraf Hakimi.
In a sense, the Maghrebiens have once again been pitted against their colonial rulers, this time on the football field. They successfully defeated Spain and are about to face France, and they will be eager to show, on the pitch and beyond, that the team and their people will not buckle under pressure. Isn't football more than just a game at times?