Morocco’s World Cup streak brings joyful Arab embrace
DOHA, Qatar (AP) — It’s a rare moment in the Middle East when the voice of the public roars louder than that of governments. But Morocco’s string of surprise World Cup wins in Qatar sparked joy and pride among Arab fans that, at least for a moment, overshadowed the many political divisions in the region.
Perhaps most striking is the celebration of love between the Palestinians and the Moroccan team, despite the Moroccan government’s normalization of ties with Israel under the 2020 Abraham Accords.
The Moroccan team waved a Palestinian flag after their victory over Spain last week, delighting the Palestinians. Throughout the tournament, the Palestinian flag was flown everywhere, carried by Arab fans and some non-Arabs – so much so that the running joke is that Palestine are the 33rd team at the World Cup.
Palestinians see it as a sign that Arab public support is still strong for their cause, even as they feel Arab governments have abandoned them, with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan also normalizing relations with Israel.
” I did not expect that. It spreads the word and shows that Palestine is not just a political issue, it’s a human issue,” said Ahmed Sabri, a young Palestinian in Doha after watching Morocco win over Portugal on Saturday. He had the Palestinian flag draped over his back.
His Egyptian friend, Yasmeen Hossam, wrapped in a Moroccan flag, said: “This is the first World Cup in the Middle East and the first FOR the Middle East.”
Morocco are the first Arab and African team to make it this far in a World Cup, playing in a semi-final against France on Wednesday. Part of the team’s Arab embrace comes simply from having something to celebrate in a region where many countries are mired in economic crises, armed conflict and political repression.
For some, it’s gratifying to see their culture displayed in a positive way on a massive international stage – whether it’s the Moroccan team doing a quick Muslim prayer during caucuses or Moroccan winger Soufiane Boufal dancing with his veiled mother on the pitch after the quarter-final victory over Portugal.
“We all cling to this Moroccan team as some kind of source of hope and happiness at a time when I think we could all really enjoy some good news,” said Danny Hajjar, a Lebanese-American music writer.
The excitement generated by each victory crossed borders and political divisions.
Algerians have joined them, even though their government severed ties with Morocco last year. The two countries have a long-running dispute over Western Sahara, which Morocco annexed in 1975 and where Algeria has long backed the Sahrawis of the Polisario Front seeking independence. Algeria has been angered by the United States’ recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the territory in return for normalization with Israel.
At the often tense border between Morocco and Algeria, fans lined up on both sides and cheered across no man’s land, videos showed on social media. In the French city of Nice, Algerians and Tunisians in the diaspora joined Moroccans in cafes and each other’s homes for the matches, setting off fireworks in celebration on the famous Mediterranean promenade Promenade des English.
In contrast, Algerian public television did not even report on Morocco’s victories, excluding them from daily World Cup reports.
For the Palestinians, the games were a breath of fresh air. The peace process with Israel has long molded in a jar on a shelf; a far-right government in Israel is about to take office; Tensions have risen in recent months with several deadly Palestinian bombings in Israel, near-daily Israeli raids in the West Bank and increasing harassment by Jewish settlers.
At the same time, many Palestinians feel they have been forgotten by Arab governments; Besides the Abraham Accords, countries like Egypt and Jordan have remained largely silent on the future of the Palestinians while stepping up cooperation with Israel.
World Cup host Qatar is a staunch Palestinian supporter and a major economic lifeline for the Gaza Strip, which has been ruled by the militant group Hamas and under Egyptian and Israeli lockdown for years.
Ahmed Abu Suleiman, a football coach from the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, said he was proud to see the Palestinian flag so much among supporters in Doha.
“Regimes change, but peoples remain unchanged. They think about the Palestinian issue, about the Palestinian wound,” he said.
Thousands of people filled a sports hall in Gaza City with a big screen donated by Qatar to watch the Morocco-Portugal game. Many held posters showing the Palestinian and Moroccan flags and the slogan “One people, one country”.
“It’s an indescribable feeling. I swear it’s like Palestinians playing,” said one fan, Ibrahim al-Lilli. “We are all Morocco.”
Scenes of jubilation also took place across the West Bank after the victory. In East Jerusalem, two men stood atop the Old City’s Damascus Gate holding a red Moroccan flag as hundreds of people below cheered and chanted, “God, Morocco, Jerusalem is Arab.”
The Moroccan victory also reverberated in Israel, which is home to hundreds of thousands of Jews of Moroccan descent. Many Israelis, including those present in Doha, supported the team.
Avi Nachmani, spokesman for the Israel-based World Federation of Moroccan Jews, said many Israelis of Moroccan descent have a strong connection to their roots. “That team growth really adds to the affinity,” he said.
He said scenes of players celebrating with their mothers reminded him of how Moroccan Jews honor their parents. “They don’t forget where they come from,” he says.
But some were appalled by the sights of the Palestinian flag. In Israel and East Jerusalem, police move quickly to tear down any display of the flag, although it is not specifically prohibited.
Rudy Rochman, an Israeli of Moroccan descent, said he felt a connection to the Moroccan team. But he called the unfurling of the Palestinian flag “intentionally offensive to Israel”.
On social media, some have said Arab enthusiasm for Morocco is erasing the large ethnic Berber population that is equally, if not more, part of the country’s identity. Other voices said Morocco’s hold on Western Sahara and the discrimination felt by many Sahrawis were lost in the cheers.
Lebanon is perhaps the most complicated, as sectarian divisions seep into footballing loyalties. While the Lebanese are overwhelmingly fans of Brazil or Germany, many have embraced Morocco and rejoiced in the streets after the win over Portugal.
The semi-final with France is more divisive. Much of the Arab world sees a chance for a former colony to give its former colonizer its edge. But some in Lebanon feel cultural affinities with France, especially Christians.
After the game against Portugal, scuffles broke out in Beirut after a group of Moroccan fans from a predominantly Muslim neighborhood rode through a Christian area on motorbikes, some raising Palestinian flags and chanting ‘God is greatest’ . They were approached by a group of local men who saw the convoy as a sectarian provocation.
Given the history of divisions and the 15-year civil war, music writer Hajjar said he wouldn’t be surprised if there was more friction on the streets around the semi-final. But, he said, he “hoped we could all enjoy the game for what it will be”.
AP journalists Wafa Shurafa in Gaza City; Josef Federman in Jerusalem; Barbara Surk in Nice, France; and Abby Sewell in Beirut contributed to this report.
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