Morocco’s rising World Cup star

Croatia and Argentina secured their spots in the World Cup semifinals, and Morocco beat Portugal to become the first African team to reach the final four.

Through the dark skies of controversy and grief of the 2022 World Cup, one star has risen to shine its light.

The green star of Morocco made history when the Atlas Lions defeated the entire Iberian Peninsula, first Spain in the Round of 16, then Portugal in the Quarter-final.  Morocco, despite being sleepy giants of African football, have a history of record-making.  In 1970, they were the first African nation to claim a World Cup point. In 1986, they were the first African team in the Round of 16. And now, in 2022, they are the first African country in a World Cup semifinal.

They will meet reigning champions, France, who defeated England in the Quarter-final round. A dark horse candidate, underestimated even by their own fans, have already accomplished the unlikely – permitting only one goal scored on them, and that feat was achieved by not Portugal, not Spain, not Belgium, not even Croatia who are also in the semifinals.

The only team to score on Morocco was Canada and it was an own goal. Canada had zero shots on goal in that match. More accurately, Morocco have not permitted a goal by an opposing player in their last eight matches, since their coach Walid Regragui took charge. Moreover, of the four teams remaining in contention for the title of World Cup winner, Morocco has the fewest goals scored against them.

Morocco’s Key Players:

Morocco don’t just play deep, as many others in earlier rounds did, they also have an offensive threat in the break. One of those threats comes courtesy of Paris Saint-Germain’s Achraf Hakimi. The 24-year-old full-back has the most passes and line-breaks in his squad. In those breaks in possession by opposition teams, Hakimi has been successfully joined by teammates, lead scorer with 2 goals for Morocco, Youseff En-Nesyri, Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech who has had eight goal attempts and an assist, and Sofiane Boufal, who plays in Ligue 1’s Angers. But none of their efforts would have mattered without the contributions of one of the best goalkeepers in La Liga, Sevilla’s Canadian-born Yassine Bounou.

The Deep Diaspora:

Like Bounou, thirteen other players on Regragui’s side are born outside Moroccan borders. The process of leaning into their diaspora did not come easily, and it offers a glimpse into the existing tension between relations of native Moroccans and their distant fellow citizens who live abroad. “Before this World Cup, we had a lot of problems with the guys born in Europe and the guys born in Morocco. But today I think it shows to the world that every Moroccan is a Moroccan,” Regragui explained to reporters speaking after of their Quarter-final match against Portugal.

After the French protectorate culminated in 1956, many Moroccans moved to France in the following decades, seeking more stability and economic opportunities. The diaspora spread across many nations including Spain, Belgium, Portugal and even Qatar, where nearly 15,000 Moroccans are currently residents. Now, nearly 5 million live abroad. And, while many pundits feared riots and violence would ensue upon their wins against Spain and Portugal, as they had in Brussels when the Atlas Lions defeated Belgium 2-0 in the Group stage, instead, those subsequent victories were met with jubilation across the world in Moroccan pockets. And when both France and Morocco made it through to the next stage, rather than their fan bases being instantly pitted against each other in Paris, the two joined forces in one rather large celebration.

That diaspora was left out of the Moroccan national team until recent decades with focused scouting in Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain. That long-game process is finally paying dividends. “Choosing a national team is not done with your head, but with your heart. I was born in the Netherlands, but I’ve always felt Moroccan,” Dutch-born Hakim Ziyech explained. The Moroccan Football Federation has not only begun supporting the growth of the game for youth and their men’s side, but also for women. They used a FIFA Forward Program grant to invest into the women’s game, who are set to compete in their first Women’s World Cup in 2023. “There are great players in Africa who deserve a little more respect and value for the work they do and the effort to get where they are,” Hakimi told reporters

Morocco was ranked 22 in the world before the tournament started, but their star keeps rising higher and higher, in spite of constant setbacks. “We’re drawing on all we have, we still have guys injured. I told the guys before the match we had to write history for Africa. I’m very, very happy,” Regragui said, after his team qualified for the semifinals.

Stars Joined by a Moon

Mamoun, “Moon” proudly displays his support for the country of his childhood. Photo credit: Henry Tran

As their team made history for their country, for their continent and for the entire Arab world, in a room full of cheering supporters, one fan bowed in disbelief. “It’s that we don’t belong here. It’s such a big stage, and this never happens,” Los Angeles resident Mamoun proclaimed afterwards. Mamoun, or “Moon” as his friends call him, took the moment in stride. Moon was raised in Morocco but has since become an American citizen, and while not always agreeing with the politics of this World Cup, he proudly announced, “it’s the only time to be nationalistic.”

Moon has never been shy around the culture of soccer. He grew up playing street soccer in parking lots in his Moroccan hometown, sometimes being caught playing hooky from school. In Los Angeles, he’s an ardent supporter of LAFC where he waves the Palestinian flag with the same pride he feels now as he prepares to head to Morocco to visit family during this rare moment in the world of soccer. His purpose at LAFC games is to raise awareness and it’s not a lost cause.

Many Americans don’t know what it looks like. “I get asked regularly if that’s a Mexican flag or a Cameroonian flag. I’ve gotten some wild guesses. I simply explain what it is,” Moon offers. If Moon and his family reach Qatar in time to watch his team make history, he won’t have to fly that flag. Despite banning many symbols and silent symbolic protests of underdogs, the 2022 FIFA World Cup has allowed for one, by permitting the Atlas Lions to bring attention to a people and place that unifies many fans and citizens. In the process of its triumphant rise, Team Morocco, who regularly bring both the Moroccan and Palestinian flags, have become representative of a diaspora, of Africa and, of a larger Arab world – an entire constellation of stars.

“People are identifying with us and we are managing to unite Moroccans behind this football team. It is worth more than anything. It is worth more than money, more than titles,” Regragui said on the eve of their match against Portugal.

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