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Morocco v. France World Cup match carries complex political baggage



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Morocco’s journey to the semi-finals of the World Cup is a bit like a fairy tale. Match after match in Qatar, the fledgling North African team unwittingly overcame favored opponents, winning with perseverance, courage and no shortage of talent. Their victory led to moments of transcendence — scenes of joyful celebration in cities across Morocco and beyond as the Atlas Lion became the cause of fame of the Middle East, the Arab world and North Africa.

In Doha, the main stadium of the tournament, the first African and Arab team to qualify for a World Cup was toasted by the whole town. In European capitals, a larger diaspora of North African immigrants took to the streets to cheer their success. At the stadiums, Morocco’s work ethic and determination – as well as the bravery of many players playing after injury – was matched by their sweetness and kindness. Some of the most viral videos from the ​World Cup are of Moroccan players hug and dance with their mother on the field after a win.

Morocco’s heroic spirit was reflected in their coach, Walid Regragui, who took over the national team this past August after a successful career at the national level in 1990. Maher Mezahi , a journalist specializing in North African football, detail how the French-born Regragui is part of a new wave of sports leadership on the continent. “He represents everything that’s right in African football: He’s young, capable, international, fearless and has an pan-African heart.” Mezahi wrote.

Ahead of Morocco’s epic semi-final against France on Wednesday, Regragui chose his team as the proverbial good guys from a Hollywood TV series. “We have made our people and our continent very happy and proud,” Regragui told reporters. “When you watch Rocky, you want to support Rocky Balboa and I think we are the Rocky of this World Cup. I think now the world is with Morocco.”

World Cup semi-finals come with two giants and two dreamers

But it’s not just pleasant sports vibes that are driving support for Morocco. On the way to the World Cup finals, Morocco defeated successive European powers: First Belgium, then neighboring Spain, and finally Portugal in the quarter-final. conclude. Now, Morocco is set to meet France, which controlled the North African nation as a protectorate for more than four decades in the first half of the 20th century.

To many from the Middle East, Africa, and the wider non-colonial world, the Moroccan team is “fighting a symbolic war,” says Monica Marks, professor of Middle Eastern politics at the campus. of New York University in Abu Dhabi, argues. It was something that, she said, struck “a lingering sense of insult,” “a collective wound to their pride and history” that still stings today.

The mushrooming support for Morocco has touched various forms of “Global South” solidarity. There was a pan-Arab jubilation that followed the Moroccan team throughout the matches in Qatar, highlighted by popular embrace of the Palestinian flag as a symbol of the broader sense of Arab solidarity and struggle. Have African pride for the pioneer pioneers of the continent at the World Cup and Amazigh, or Berber, is the pride of people rooted in the indigenous traditions and culture of North Africa. And there’s also been a wave of “euphoria” for a team that is in the habit of kneeling in prayer after a game.

The thrill of Morocco beating traditional European heavyweights is inevitable. On social networks, there are many memes about Morocco revive the old 8th century Islamic conquestsacross the Pyrenees after lowering both countries on the Iberian peninsula.

But it’s a bit more complicated than that. The global acceptance of Morocco as the champion of the postcolonial world has obscured the extent to which Morocco itself is engaged in an ongoing form of colonialism — its disputed occupation of Western Sahara. “Even in moments of ecstatic regional and continental jubilation, a jubilation with significant anti-colonial undertones, we must appreciate that the Ma state itself,” says Marks. Rocky occupies the uncomfortable position of being both a colony and a colonist.

Of course, the Moroccan team is not a reflection of the Moroccan state, as fans around the world realize. “If we focus on politics, Morocco is the enemy after choosing Israel as a friend,” said Miloud Mohamed, a taxi driver in Algiers, told Voice of America, referring to Morocco entering into diplomatic normalization agreements with Israel. “But football is not about politics. That’s why I support Morocco in this World Cup.”

After that, there are about 5 million Moroccans living abroad, mainly concentrated in the countries of Western Europe. Much of Morocco’s 26-man squad was born outside of Morocco, mainly in countries like Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium and France. Given the position where most of the stars of Morocco play, it is a European team, but not a European team.

In France, the impending match against Morocco revived the political tensions surrounding football in the country over the past two decades. Far-right French politician Éric Zemmour went on television this week to denounce possible French nationals of North African descent. Down the road to cheer for Morocco in their homeland. Other traditional right-wing and far-right politicians see these celebrations as a security threat; There have been reports of clashes between revelers and police in different cities in Europe after the victory of Morocco.

Morocco’s World Cup victory lifts a legion of Arab fans

The irony is that the French team is a reflection of a multiculturalism that makes the French establishment uncomfortable. The team mainly comes from African and Arab immigrant communities with connections to former French colonies. And over the years, its success has been seen as a valid statement on French integration and its failures as an indictment of the “separatist” tendencies of certain minorities. number. French striker Karim Benzema famously said: “If I score, I’m French; otherwise, I’m Arab.”

The current Moroccan and French teams are no longer strangers to each other. Some of the players on both sides grew up in the same neighborhood, joined the same super clubs and lived the same lavish lifestyles of the super-rich in football. Their national team affiliates believe in a common context.

France’s political elites still struggle with the concept of a hyphenated identity in an institutionally color-blind country (although, in reality, not quite). French President Emmanuel Macron, who is set to attend Wednesday’s semi-final in Qatar, even complained about the alleged intrusion of American “identity politics” among some of France’s minorities. .

But Rim-Sarah Alouane, a French legal scholar and political commentator of Algerian descent, told me that the clash between France and Morocco will introduce a generation of athletes that have further fueled the conversation. identity, no matter what the political class says.

“There is a generation that is connected to the rest of the world, creating its own French identity, encompassing many cultures,” Alouane said. She added that the Moroccan team, which includes players who may have represented France, “is the crystallization of this hyphenated identity at its peak, an acknowledgment that we are living in a globalized world where you can choose the team you want to play against for a variety of reasons.”

It is a perception that does not suit some people. “In the right-wing circles, they’re constantly telling you that you don’t belong, that you don’t fit in enough,” Alouane said. “Then you play on the national team and they warn you that there are too many Arabs or Blacks on the team. Of course, that changes when you win.”

“At one point,” she concludes, “the people with identity problems are not who you think they are.”

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