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Opinion: Why Morocco's Atlas Lions are Africa's pride

Cai Nebe
Cai Nebe
December 14, 2022

An impenetrable defense, pace on the counter and diaspora talent, yet still not everyone considers Morocco to be an African team. DW's Cai Nebe is from Namibia and explains why African fans should back the Atlas Lions.

Belgien Brüssel | Unruhen nach WM Spiel - Fans von Marokko
Image: Dursun Aydemir/AA/picture alliance

The last time an African team came anywhere close to a World Cup final was 2010, the first World Cup held in Africa.

When hosts South Africa bowed out in the group stages, the entire continent pinned their hopes on Ghana's Black Stars, whose run to the quarterfinals ended in ignominy against Uruguay. I still remember the villainous Luis Suarez and the heart-breaking penalty shootout.

Even our end-of-year high school play back home in Namibia was based on that moment!

Lions that defend the pride

With all respect to Ghana in 2010, Morocco’s Atlas Lions in 2022 are a different beast. They've brushed aside FIFA's No. 2 ranked Belgium, knocked out favorites Spain and shut down Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo.

All without conceding a goal from an opposition player. Morocco has the stingiest of defenses, and even more remarkably, ended the quarter final against Portugal without three of their starting defenders, captain Romain Saiss, Noussair Mazraoui and Nayef Aguerd being injured.

The 'red wall' has been borderline impenetrable. Watching Morocco defend fills one with confidence, rather than dread, while their counterattacking excites fans and strikes fear in opponents.

Didier Deschamps, coach of semi-final opponents France, put it best: "They weren't among the teams we were expecting, but it's anything but a surprise. They didn't steal their results."

DW's Cai Nebe
DW's Cai Nebe hails from Namibia - and is backing Morocco at the World CupImage: Philipp Böll/DW

'Every Moroccan is Moroccan'

Teams win tournaments, not stars. Coach Walid Regragui, who only took charge in September, has forged a united squad which is a shining example of diversity, with more than half the squad was born outside Morocco.

Achraf Hakimi, born in Madrid to Moroccan parents and who spent his entire youth career at Real Madrid, chipped home the winning penalty to knock out Spain. Imperious goalkeeper Yassine Bounou was born in icy Montreal and faced his native Canada in the group stage, while Selim Amallah similarly playing against the team of his country of birth, Belgium. Sofiane Boufal and Roman Saiss, both born in France, will relish the chance to play Les Bleus for a spot in the World Cup final.

Some analysts have questioned Morocco, and other African national teams, for scouting players in diaspora communities who were trained in Europe's excellent football academies — but why not?

Smart recruiting has leveled the playing field. The ability to call upon players of the caliber of Hakimi (now Paris Saint-Germain), Hakim Ziyech (Chelsea) and Youssef El-Nesyri (Sevilla), who regularly compete at the summit of European football, is useful when the best teams at the World Cup are mostly European.

Colonial role-reversal 

The practice is not new, either. In 1966, two Mozambique-born talents led Portugal to the semi-finals: captain Mario Coluna and the great Eusebio, who dazzled as the tournament's top scorer.

If Portugal could call upon their African colonies for talent, why shouldn’t those former colonies now look to their diasporas in the countries of their former colonial masters? It's a unique role-reversal for which Regragui, himself born in France, deserves credit for capitalizing on.

"We have shown that every Moroccan is Moroccan," he said. "When he comes to the national team, he wants to fight. As the coach, I was born in France, but nobody can question my heart when it comes to my country."

Football fans celebrate together with Moroccan, Turkish and Algerian flags
Morocco's success has united fans from across Africa and the Arab worldImage: Christoph Reichwein/dpa/picture alliance

Arab, African, or both?

Morocco's success has enthralled the Arab world and Muslim-majority nations, and rightly so — but the jubilation and horn-blaring across North African and European cities hasn’t always extended south to Accra, Nairobi, Johannesburg or Kinshasa.

While Morocco competes in Confederation of African Football (CAF) tournaments, the Sahara Desert has been not just a geographical divide but also a historical and cultural one. There have even been cruel suggestions in parts of sub-Saharan Africa that North African teams are "not really Africa."

But not according to Morocco coach Regragui. "We want Africa to be top of the world," he says. It's clear the Atlas Lions have every intention of sharing the spoils with the entire African continent.

Embracing the Atlas Lions as Africa's team at this World Cup is fitting. Rarely has a team inspired so many along religious lines and across geography. More politically-minded fans might even draw quiet satisfaction from Morocco defeating consecutive ex-colonial masters.

Just imagine if they also beat France! They’ll be writing high school plays about it.

Edited by: Matt Ford