In the summer of 2000, I settled in with my dad to watch a soccer match between England and Portugal in the group stage of the Euro Cup. I knew many of the English soccer players because I was obsessed with the Premier League – legends like Alan Shearer, Paul Scholes, David Beckham and others took to the pitch and were up 2-0 in the first 20 minutes of the match. But the Portuguese team was stacked with legends as well – Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Nuno Gomes, Sergio Conceicao and others who turned out to be a golden generation that played some of the most beautiful soccer I had seen. They won 3-2. I became a fan for life.
I was excited by Portugal’s prospects in the World Cup in Qatar. A new golden generation was emerging, led by an aging Cristiano Ronaldo, who at 37 was likely playing in his last Mondial, a final opportunity for one of the greatest players of all time to win the tournament. The team appeared headed toward a classic quarterfinal matchup against Spain, one of the tournament favorites. But then the inconceivable happened. Morocco ousted Spain in penalties, an upset of enormous proportions, becoming the first Arab team to reach the quarterfinals of the World Cup. Then they went on to crush Ronaldo’s dreams of a World Cup title, eliminating Portugal 1-0 in a historic fixture that placed Africa and the Arab world, for the first time ever, one step away from the final. And I was deliriously joyous.
The Atlas Lions would go on to lose in the semifinal to France, but history was already written.
When the World Cup began, it did not feel to me like there was anything distinctly Arab about it, save perhaps for the controversy over public alcohol consumption and LGBT rights and the ban on rainbow flags. Qatar does not boast the established footballing traditions and culture of larger Middle Eastern countries like Egypt, several in North Africa or even Saudi Arabia. Ironic then that it became the site where we witnessed a heroic campaign by Morocco.
I’m not quite sure why I teared up when goalkeeper Yassin Bono saved two Spanish penalties or when Achraf Hakimi scored the spot kick that won the match or when Youssef En-Nesyri placed a header in the back of the Portuguese net. I certainly wasn’t alone, given the endless jubilation on social media and the joyous weeping of the Arab soccer commentators with every goal scored (for Morocco and prior to that for Saudi Arabia).
It meant something distinctly different as well for everyone watching. Neutrals saw thrill in the victory of the underdog. The Palestinian flag the Moroccans often brandished centered the Palestinian cause, despite the country’s government signing a peace treaty with Israel, highlighting how such treaties remain unpopular among the region’s populations. Morocco’s victories came against former colonial overlords of it and other parts of Africa, with wins against Belgium, Spain and Portugal before finally being bested by France. Most of those countries host large Moroccan immigrant populations, often subjected to discrimination and distrust, and there was vindication there too. For some, it was an opportunity to highlight that Morocco was not simply an Arab country but was Amazigh too and sought to reclaim that identity. The sight of Morocco’s players prostrating after goals and victories galvanized the world’s Muslims. Videos of the team’s star Sofiane Boufal dancing on the pitch with his mother, clad in a headscarf, were both heartwarming and poignant. Memes abounded on social media, though some got carried away, like the ones that celebrated the victory against Spain by harkening back to al-Andalus and proclaiming it a victory for the faith itself – a confusing proposition, since it would mean Christianity itself had won every World Cup since 1930.
It is easy to be cynical and also to get carried away by the meaning of Morocco’s run. Acute differences, prejudice and even hatred exist among nations in the Middle East, yet I also cannot explain the depth of my own emotions, the profundity of which surprised my own cynical, journalistic self. It is fashionable to declare the cause of pan-Arabism dead – I personally believed it is, and in a sober light nothing has changed. Yet the visceral nature of the emotional response to Morocco’s campaign cannot be denied, the feeling that something deeper than simply belonging to the Global South is at play. Perhaps we are too quick to dismiss the shared bonds of language and culture and the affinity they bring. Or perhaps we are simply starved for any kind of victory amid the malaise.
For me, the victory was meaningful in two other respects. One, the glory of this World Cup performance will inspire generations of young Moroccans and Arabs to pursue careers in soccer. It lays the foundations for the emergence of a pool of grassroots talents that will reshape soccer in the region in the years and decades to come.
The second is a more personal one, and it has to do with the idea that you can belong to two places at once. Achraf Hakimi, who scored the winning penalty against Spain, was born and raised in Madrid. Bono, probably the best goalkeeper in the World Cup, was born in Montreal, like my son, and raised in Morocco. It is moving to me not simply that they are immigrants themselves but also that they were able to reconcile that identity with their roots, choosing in fact to represent their country of origin instead of their adopted home. I know very few people back home who would stay if given the opportunity to leave. I left too and feel guilty when I am homesick, bound by the idea that I should be grateful here. And it is deeply comforting to know I can belong to two places at once, that this tension need not exist.
Whatever the emotional complexities behind the joy, however, one thing is certain. I am happy to live in the age of Yassin Bono, Sofiane Boufal, Achraf Hakimi, Sofyan Amrabat, Hakim Ziyech and Azzedine Ounahi as well as to be witness to their ascent in soccer’s pantheon.