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Africa and the Middle East united behind Morocco

Ali Farhat Doha | Matt Ford
December 7, 2022

Morocco have become the first ever Arab nation to reach a World Cup quarterfinal and the first African side to do so since Ghana in 2010. In Doha, the Atlas Lions have support from across Africa and the Middle East.

Morocco players celebrate after they won on penalty shoot-out the Qatar 2022 World Cup round of 16 football match between Morocco and Spain at the Education City Stadium in Al-Rayyan
Sheer joy: Morocco's players celebrate their penalty shootout win over Spain. They have the whole of Africa and the Arab behind them, but how far can they go?Image: ODD ANDERSEN/AFP

When Morocco face Portugal for a place in the World Cup semifinal on Saturday, they will be able to count not only on the support of thousands of traveling fans from the north-western tip of Africa, but indeed of millions across the entire continent and the Middle East.

After their stunning penalty shootout win over Spain, the Atlas Lions are the only African representatives left in Qatar and the first African side to reach the quarterfinal since Ghana in 2010. They're also the first ever Arab nation to reach this stage of a World Cup, earning them huge swathes of support.

"I'm Egyptian but I'm here to support Morocco," confirms Gamal, a supporter DW encounters at Souq Waqif, one of the most popular convergence points for fans in Doha. "Morocco is the last Arab country left in the competition, and also the last African country."

Hakim Ziyech, Achraf Hakimi and co have already made history at this tournament by becoming the first African team to win a World Cup group since Nigeria in 1998, ahead of heavyweights Croatia and Belgium.

Now, having overcome their neighbors from across the Strait of Gibraltar, they have a chance of achieving what Ghana came so close to doing in South Africa in 2010: becoming the first African side to reach a World Cup semifinal.

Like Ghana in South Africa, they have a continent united behind them, despite the significant differences which often divide northern and sub-Saharan Africa.

'Morocco are playing for all Africans'

When a European country is eliminated from a World Cup, supporters tend to follow the rest of the tournament rather passively, interested more in the overall outcome rather than the fortunes of other European teams. Indeed, they're more likely to take a greater interest in a side from a different confederation such as Brazil or Argentina.

But not in Africa. While African fans might support their own nation primarily, it's not uncommon to hear them say they're supporting all the African teams, even putting aside certain rivalries.

Morocco's coach Walid Regragui is thrown into the air after winning the 2022 World Cup Group F match between Canada and Morocco
All together now: Morocco have the support of an entire continent behind themImage: PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP

Mahmoud, for example, an Egyptian restaurant owner in Qatar had come to watch Senegal vs. England. And, despite Egypt having lost to Senegal both in the Africa Cup of Nations final and the World Cup qualification playoffs, he was backing the Lions of Teranga.

"They're playing for us," Mahmoud tells DW. "They're taking to the field for all Africans."

Soundly beaten by England, Senegal were unable to repeat their exploits of 2002 when they reached the quarterfinal in Japan and South Korea. But, despite the disappointment, the fans now have a new mission.

"Now we're going to support Morocco until the very end," insists Bintou, a member of the "12th Gainde," the colorful Senegalese fan group which translates as "12th player” in Wolof. "All of Senegal, all of Africa, is behind Morocco. They're our team now and we hope they can reach the final."

Diplomatic disputes put aside

In the buildup to the kick-off against Spain, the atmosphere in the streets of the Souq Waqif was dominated by Moroccans, around 15,000 of whom are residents in Qatar – but also by Senegalese, Cameroonian, Tunisian and Ghanaian fans.

Not to mention fans of African nations that didn't even qualify, and even of Algeria, whose diplomatic relations with Morocco are currently strained over the issue of Western Sahara. While Algeria supports the territory's desire for independence, Morocco won't hear of it, and Algerian television often ignores the Moroccan team's results.

Nevertheless, videos on social media showed Algerians celebrating Morocco's win over Belgium just as feverishly as the rest of Africa, showing that while states may quarrel, their people are only focused on one thing: Seeing Africa and the Arab world shine at the World Cup, regardless which part.

Morocco's Jawad El Yamiq, from left, Nayef Aguerd, and goalkeeper Yassine Bounou celebrate after the World Cup group F match between Canada and Morocco
African world champions? Why not? And why not Morocco?Image: Pavel Golovkin/AP/picture alliance

'Why couldn't an African team win the World Cup?'

It's a sentiment felt not only among the supporters, but also among those closer to the action.

"We're African, too," declared Walid Regragui, the Morocco head coach, ahead of the final group game against Canada. "And so, like Senegal, like Ghana, like Cameroon and like Tunisia, we want to fly the flag for African football."

For Regragui, it's not just about continental solidarity; the Atlas Lions have a sporting point to prove as well.

"African football is often dismissed as mediocre but, at this World Cup, I think we have shown that we can make life difficult for anybody," he continued.

"We all talk about the European teams, the South American teams, but I hope that, in future, we'll see more places for African teams. So that, why not? Why couldn't an African country win the World Cup?"

But first, Africa is still waiting for its first semifinalist. In Qatar, a whole continent is hoping that will be Morocco.

This article was originally written in French and translated by Matt Ford.

DW Matthew Ford Sports
Matt Ford Reporter and editor for DW Sports specializing in European football, fan culture & sports politics.@matt_4d