How Morocco’s World Cup Run Reignited a Debate on Soccer Colonialism

How Morocco’s World Cup Run Reignited a Debate on Soccer Colonialism
Larbi Ben Barek of Marseille and Eloy of Sedan during a French Cup quarterfinals match in 1954. (Universal/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

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The French soccer team knocked Morocco out of the World Cup last week, leading to many broken hearts across North Africa, the Middle East and, because of its history of colonial migration, France. France established a protectorate in Morocco that lasted from 1912 to 1956, effectively colonizing the country. So the match seemed the opportunity for a postcolonial reckoning, particularly after Morocco’s victory over two of its other ex-colonial powers, Spain and Portugal. But soccer between France and Morocco has always been a microcosm of imperial control.

In Morocco, the French hoped to govern more peacefully and with a greater emphasis on soft power than they did in their occupation of neighboring Algeria. Gen. Hubert Lyautey, the first French resident general of Morocco, spoke about his “oil stain” technique, spreading power slowly through the country and often through local Moroccan leaders. Medicine and education were two vehicles for employing the technique, providing a way to indirectly influence the Moroccan population. Soccer was a third.

One of the most famous matches embodying this principle took place in Casablanca on April 11, 1937, between the Moroccan team and the French B team. From the very beginning, the French government and the French Football Association made clear the match was “for propaganda purposes.” The French colonial government paid for the French team to come to Morocco, where Gen. Charles Noguès, the resident general at the time, welcomed them at the protectorate’s headquarters in the capital, Rabat, the day before the match. The Moroccan soccer league dated to 1916, four years after the introduction of the French protectorate. This was the fourth time the French B team had traveled to Morocco, but Morocco had always lost.

Press coverage, pushing the colonial narrative of France as the “patrie” (fatherland) and Morocco as the undeveloped child in need of guidance, described the contest as “between the masters, the representatives of French football, and the schoolchildren, the young Moroccan players.” A colonial newspaper in Morocco even referred to the Moroccan team as “submissive schoolchildren.” In a rather heavy-handed metaphor, a phone line was installed in the stadium to link Casablanca and Paris, while the “zouaves” — Moroccan soldiers in the French army — played music to the crowd. This was a show of colonial force, a reminder of French hegemony and a way to further increase French influence.

Yet in a fast-paced, hotly contested 90 minutes, Morocco bested the French, 4-2. The Moroccans in the stadium were elated with what could very easily have become an anti-colonial show of Moroccan strength, except that only three of the 11 members of the team were Moroccan: Mekki, Trimbo and Larbi Ben Barek. The rest were all white Europeans living in Morocco. This was due to French colonial policy: The Ligue du Maroc de Football had decided in 1936 that all teams had to have at least three European players to take part in the league.

In 1938, the governor of Algeria wrote to Noguès to explain that he would be introducing similar race regulations for soccer teams there “to avoid football matches between Europeans and ‘natives’ from degenerating into ethnic, political or social rivalries.” Noguès replied that these regulations already existed in Morocco. Both governors agreed that ensuring soccer teams included European and North African players avoided augmenting the simmering tensions of colonial racial hierarchies.

Colonial authorities were aware of the violence that could erupt from bad optics, of possible consequences of encouraging rowdy soccer crowds to cheer the team they felt represented their race and their country. Even movies in Morocco in the 1930s were heavily censored to avoid the cheering that erupted when anyone who might be thought to be North African killed someone white. This even included American films with shootouts between Native Americans and cowboys. Ensuring that there were white players on the North African teams also served as a reminder of colonial power, of the ongoing myth of the closeness of “Franco-Moroccan relations” that overlooked how this was a coercive closeness thrust upon Moroccan people that most would never have chosen. It was also a path to avoiding a possible threat to colonial racial hierarchies if an all-white team were defeated by an entirely North African team.

Colonial racial science was also behind mixed-race soccer teams. In 1926, just 10 years before the regulations were introduced, the French academic Georges Hardy published a book on the “Moroccan soul,” which complained that, in Morocco, “the ‘native’ society sees itself as made up of a dust of individual molecules without any cohesion, any link, that only the pressure of a governing authority can bring together.” The book added that Moroccans “have an excess of emotions and lack a team spirit.” These beliefs, created to justify French imperialism, were common in colonial Morocco. Early 20th-century French authorities would have thought Moroccan players incapable of forming a cohesive team without the guiding hand of Europeans.

Racially mixed soccer teams paraded a colonial fantasy of collaboration and peace between French and Moroccan people, neatly encapsulated in a propaganda event that thousands of people could attend. But the reality of playing on the team was hardly racially egalitarian. Even traveling between different towns for matches revealed the depth of colonial inequality, since Moroccans could not move freely even within the French Zone of Morocco. They needed a special permit to move between different regions under French control; a permit granted at the discretion of the French authorities. To travel abroad to matches or to the Spanish or international zones of Morocco, they would need a visa and a passport, which were considerably harder for Moroccans to obtain than for Europeans.

Moroccan players also had to be exceptionally gifted. The three Moroccan players who were members of the 1937 team were considerably more talented than the European players, particularly Ben Barek. The first footballer nicknamed “la perle noire” (“the black pearl”), a moniker later given to the Mozambique-born Eusebio and then Brazil’s Pelé, Ben Barek proved himself with a spectacular performance for the 1937 team, which led to his signing by the French club giant Olympique de Marseille in 1938.

In 1931, Raoul Diagne, the son of French Guianese politician Blaise Diagne, became the first player of African descent on a French soccer team. But Ben Barek was the first North African. Despite colonial race regulations to limit Moroccan players, Ben Barek was able to take one of the first steps to diversify French soccer. Today, over half the players on France’s team are “issus de l’immigration.”

Soccer provided a way for French colonial authorities to try to project a fantasy of colonial rule and to increase their soft power. But it has also served as a way to communicate anti-colonial support. After freedom from France in 1956, it also provided a way for the newly independent Morocco to show solidarity with the Algerian team during the depths of the Algerian war of independence. The Moroccan team was banned for two years by FIFA in 1958 because it had played a match against Algeria’s FLN team, the anti-colonial group fighting for independence from France and considered terrorists by the French government. More than 60 years later, the Moroccan soccer team has echoed the same solidarity by calling to free Palestine and by posing for photographs with the Palestinian flag. Soccer may have been a way to strengthen colonial power in Morocco, but Moroccans have repeatedly used it as an expression of anti-colonial protest.

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