Morocco leave the World Cup, but they are not defeated

The team's remarkable journey will form a major part of the legacy of this tournament

France's Kylian Mbappe comforts Morocco's Achraf Hakimi at the end of the Qatar 2022 World Cup semi-final. AFP
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In the Madhattan cafe in Beirut, supporters crowded around screens to watch Wednesday's World Cup semi-final between France and Morocco. Samer, 22, was clear about why he was supporting Morocco: “They are the underdog, they support the Palestinian cause and it is the first time that an Arab country has made it so far."

In the Dubai Media City fan zone, thousands of fans supporting Morocco crammed to watch the game, bellowing their support. Before kick-off, hundreds of others were queuing to get a glimpse of screens. It was a similar picture across much of the Middle East and North Africa.

In the 60,000-seat Al Bayt stadium, where the match was being held, the vast majority of supporters were Moroccan, a fact made clear by the epic noise that followed every time their team won the ball. Sheikh Tamim, the Emir of Qatar, was also in attendance; he has been to every match played by an Arab side during the tournament.

Every World Cup is remembered for one or two things. It is impossible to see how Morocco's record-breaking and unifying journey, as demonstrated by these stories, will not be one of them in 2022.

In that sense, their 2-0 defeat to reigning champions France on Wednesday evening is far from a failure.

In purely footballing terms, Morocco have kept crowds across the world entertained, gained invaluable experience in how to play the toughest international games and showed the mounting force of African and Arab teams. Morocco is now the first African and Arab team to get to a semi-final. Other Arab squads have beaten both World Cup finalists – France and Argentina – in earlier stages of the tournament: Saudi Arabia in their 2-1 victory against Argentina and Tunisia in their 1-0 victory over France.

Morocco's time outside play shows that football matters beyond the game itself. Kylian Mbappe's embrace of Paris Saint-Germain teammate Achraf Hakimi was perhaps the greatest sign of all from Wednesday evening that true sportsmanship always finds unity, even in defeat. Sofiane Boufal's dance with his mother after an earlier victory showed the joy of the game and served as a tribute to the families behind remarkable footballers. A viral story of a UAE-based dentist giving a Moroccan fan a full set of dentures after he was bullied for having a "bad smile” during his celebrations, shows the positive energy that sport can beam across the internet – and societies.

Morocco's journey has not been without less happy stories. France saw violent confrontations following Wednesday’s match. Ten-thousand French police were mobilised. Tragically, a teenager lost his life in the city of Montpellier.

But feelings of division during this World Cup have been overshadowed by positives ones. A good place to see this is in Qatar itself. Matches have been remarkably peaceful, with notably less violence than in other international football tournaments. There were some western complaints in the build-up when Qatari authorities decided not to sell alcohol in stadiums. But with such a convivial atmosphere dominating this World Cup, there is no denying that the decision might well have contributed to this being one of the most family-friendly tournaments in many years.

Back in Beirut's Madhattan cafe, a similarly positive atmosphere descended as well. Samer also said, in fluent French, that "France was his second choice", and that he would support them in the final against Argentina.

More than most, Lebanon is a country that deserves respite, even a brief one, from modern travails and a difficult history. Samer's positive attitude, and that of the many fans around him, could hardly be a more apt symbol of how football can bring the world together. This year, Morocco can be thanked in particular for doing just that.

Published: December 16, 2022, 3:00 AM