This is the eleventh in a series of essays about the 2018 World Cup guest-edited by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro.
For Morocco, this World Cup began with defeat. We were favored to win our first match, against Iran, but in a turn of fate, with the game tied nil-all and minutes before the end, one of the Moroccan players scored an own-goal. That 1-0 loss crushed our slim hopes to shine and to advance from a challenging group. Sure enough, in our second game, against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal, we proceeded to lose—despite dominating the match. On Monday, against Spain, we had little left to play for—except, perhaps, some honor. But in an amazing game that twice saw Morocco go ahead against one of the world’s top teams, we earned a 2-2 draw that left Moroccans proud of the national team despite its not making it to the next round.
This was the first time in twenty years that Morocco—a country where soccer is hugely popular—has competed on the game’s biggest stage. A good many Moroccans traveled to Russia to cheer on the team. What they’ve seen there—a pair of defeats and a tie that have again deferred our dream of becoming a great soccer nation—has, despite that upbeat final match, been a disappointment.
The downcast feeling of this World Cup for Moroccans has much to do with circumstances beyond the pitch. Political and economic difficulties back home have cast a pall on the campaign of a national team that mainly comprises players drawn from the Moroccan diaspora in Europe. Since October 2016, political unrest has shaken northern parts of the kingdom, with protesters demanding more jobs and less corruption. The Moroccan authorities met these demonstrations with repression and mass jailings. Citizen groups recently organized an economic boycott of gas, milk, and water companies in an effort to force them to lower their prices. Popular resentment is palpable. The cost of living is too high and people are fed up with a government that has been preoccupied with promoting Morocco’s bid to host the World Cup in 2026.
The day before this year’s tournament kicked off in Moscow, FIFA chose a rival bid for 2026 from the United States, Mexico, and Canada. This was Morocco’s fifth attempt to win the right to host the tournament. But many of us Moroccans were relieved at the news of this loss since it prevented what would surely have been an economic catastrophe for this nation of 35 million that suffers from endemic unemployment and poverty. Although its backers pointed to FIFA’s promises, if the bid were successful, to provide assistance in building new roads and hospitals, the main expenditure on a World Cup would probably have gone to erecting nine new stadiums the country doesn’t need.
What the country does need, certainly, is a positive event—and that’s what lay behind the government’s efforts in recent years to persuade Morocco’s rising bi-national soccer stars living in Europe to play for their parents’ homeland. Of the twenty-three players who represented us in Russia, seventeen were born outside Morocco. The captain, Medhi Benatia, was born in France and plays for Juventus in Italy. Soccer is hugely popular in the working-class, immigrant-dominated neighborhoods on the peripheries of European capitals where many Moroccans live—and from where many talented football players have emerged.
Back in the 1980s, as the country was going through the “bread protests” prompted by hikes in food prices, King Hassan II pushed for the development of sports. Moroccan stars emerged on the field, rallying the country behind a strong sense of patriotic pride. Through the 1990s, sportsmen and sportswomen representing Morocco won gold medals in Olympic games, competed in international tennis tournaments, and qualified for top soccer championships. But that has changed. King Mohammed VI, in power since his father Hassan’s death in 1999, seems less interested in sports.
Efforts to produce winning teams have often prioritized recruiting Moroccans from the diaspora over supporting sports at home. This approach helped us qualify for Russia, but now that we’re there, it has also predictably been blamed for the struggles of a team on which many players don’t speak Arabic. Communication among them was said to be complicated, with a degree of confusion about whether the coach, the Frenchman Hervé Renard, should address his players in French or English.
Many people back home today shared the sentiments of fans like Amine Lahbabi, who lives in Casablanca. “I don’t feel represented by this team,” he told me before the Cup began. “To me, this World Cup will be a chance to see beautiful games and incidentally support this squad, but nothing further.” The artist Réda Allali, one of the most committed Moroccan soccer fans I know, felt similarly. “Back in the day, the players used to live in our neighborhoods,” he said. “Sometimes, we’d run into them in cafés. Some were students, others had a day job at the bank, they felt accessible. Now, with globalization, much of this has changed.”
Much also hasn’t. Throughout Morocco, men fill cafés to watch games—local and international—while exchanging strong opinions about the teams and coaches’ strategies. Boys and young men, often dressed in knock-off jerseys of their favorite players, play soccer in the streets or on the beach. The screams of ecstatic fans fill the air when a favorite star like Lionel Messi scores a goal.
I myself grew up in a household where we watched every one of the national team’s games that we could. My father once served as the treasurer of the main club in his hometown, Fes, and my brother Mehdi—who has an excellent memory—can talk for hours about the players he idolizes, his favorite goals, and classic soccer moments over the years.
After the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, people raved for years about how Morocco was the first African squad ever to make it to the second round. Although the team then lost to Germany, it received a hero’s welcome when it returned to Morocco. And in 1998, even if we didn’t pass the tournament’s first round, the national team was celebrated and welcomed with cheers and love from their fans for an honorable performance. There was some magic in watching our Moroccan boys sharing the field with huge stars like Ronaldo of Brazil.
Before this World Cup, though, we were jaded, and Morocco’s fans were apathetic. Even so, I was surprised when Mehdi told me he had no plans to go to Russia. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been. These days, Moroccans are more excited about the Egyptian striker Mohamed Salah than they are about their own players. I am currently in the Dominican Republic on assignment—a country where people love baseball, but soccer not so much. I tried to watch the first Moroccan game in a bar, but the bartender couldn’t find a network that broadcast it. So I watched a poorly-streamed version on my iPad. I wanted to be with other Moroccans, and when we lost, I didn’t think about any larger issues, I just felt sad.
No matter how disillusioned you are with your country’s team or how frustrated with your country’s government, it still hurts to see a squad of players, dressed in the national colors, not succeed. But as that strong final game reminded me, it’s hard not to feel proud when they do. Between that opening loss to Iran and the second half against Spain, something changed. Maybe it happened sixteen minutes into the Portugal game, when our ebullient winger Nordin Amrabat, who had received a head injury in the game against Iran, tossed away his protective headgear and urged the team on. That won Moroccans’ hearts.