By James M. Dorsey
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France defeated Morocco 2:0 on the pitch, but off the pitch Morocco is up 4:0.
Ultimately, the effects of Morocco’s off-the-pitch success may ripple much longer than the fallout of its stellar performance in the stadium.
To be sure, Morocco shares its off-the-pitch success with others, including France, its on-the-pitch history-laden rival, as well as Qatar and Qatari activists.
Fielding squads populated to large degrees by immigrants and their descendants, Morocco and France put migration in a different light at a time when Europe struggled to control immigration.
Migration helped make both teams what they are, one of the world’s top four soccer squads.
The symbolism was not lost on the day four people died when a boat carrying dozens of would-be migrants from France to Britain capsized in the English Channel.
The incident boosted calls for policies that offer migrants safe and legal pathways rather than focus primarily on law enforcement and border protection.
Imagine that France and Morocco had duelled four days later on December 18, International Migrants Day and the day of France’s World Cup final against Argentina. The symbolism would have been even starker.
Even so, the Morocco-France match added texture to the identity aspect of the migration debate and the symbolism of Morocco’s on and off-the-pitch performance.
Many Moroccans and non-Moroccans took pride and joy in the North African state’s Cinderella-like march through the tournament against the backdrop of colonial history, decades of Islam having been put post-9/11 on the defensive amid rising Islamophobia, and as an expression of the rebalancing of global power between West and East.
“Morocco’s semifinal pairing with France has…taken on outsized geopolitical dimensions, seemingly pitting the once colonized against its former colonizer, the Global South taking on the Global North, East against West, David versus Goliath,” said Paul Silverstein, an anthropologist, focused on North Africa.
On one level, the support of a predominantly Muslim Arab and African nation constituted a rejection of militant, politically violent expressions of Islam that sought to exploit the World Cup to divide rather than bring people together in a fleeting moment of solidarity.
An Islamic State poster accusing Jews and Christians of using sports to distract Muslims from waging jihad failed to resonate with fans in Doha and elsewhere.
Sports scholar Mahfoud Amara and political scientist Youcef Bouandel noted that “even the most radical and conservative wings in Islam have not been successful in distancing these populations with their (quasi–religious) passion for football. Which for many is one of the few sources of entertainment when confronted with daily socio-economic difficulties.”
Likewise, the empathy with Morocco’s sporting success and spotlighting of the Palestinian cause fuelled rather than resolved debates about Moroccan identity, visible gaps between Arab elites and publics, and rivalries among Gulf states that continue to play out despite an end to open animosity.
Little noticed in the celebration of the Moroccan fete as an Arab and African success was Moroccan goalkeeper Munir Mohammed el Kajoui’s gesture when he put his Amazigh identity on public display by wrapping the ethnic group’s tricolour around his waist during celebrations after Morocco defeated Spain.
Amazighs or Berbers account for 40 per cent of the Moroccan population. They saw their identity buried under the Arab African label. To assert themselves, Amazighs celebrated Mr. El Kajoui’s gesture on social media, prompting discussion about whether Morocco is an Arab country.
The complexity of the identity issue at times sparked confusion.
In one incident, in a twist of irony, Qatari security prevented fans from bringing the blue, green, and yellow Amazigh tricolour into the stadium in the mistaken belief that it represented the LGBTQ rainbow.
In another, Moroccan striker Hakim Ziyech listened, impatiently drumming his fingers, to a journalist asking questions in Arabic. A speaker of Dutch, English, and Tarfit, a Berber language, Mr. Ziyech responded, “Now in English, please.”
Most Moroccans speak darija, a spoken rather than a written language widely classified as an Arabic dialect that most Arabic speakers beyond the Maghreb, the western part of North Africa that also includes Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, and Tunisia, are unable to understand.
As a result, BeIn, the Qatari sports broadcaster, adds Arabic subtitles when it broadcasts interviews with darija-speaking Moroccan players and fans.
As genuine as World Cup fans’ support of the Palestinians was, the emergence of Palestine as a touchstone for the gap between elites and public opinion constituted a throwback to the days when Palestinians were a lightning rod for widespread frustration with non-performing, autocratic Arab regimes.
In a subtle, or perhaps not so subtle way, Palestine served Qatar’s purpose.
It allowed Qatar to point the finger at its Gulf rivals, particularly the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. These two Arab states were at the forefront of the 3.5-year-long UAE-Saudi-led economic and diplomatic boycott of the Gulf state that was lifted in early 2021 and recognized Israel in 2020.
To be sure, the subtext of animosity encountered by Israelis in Qatar was a far cry from the call on Muslims by the Islamic State to “cut…(the) necks of Christians and Jews and kick their heads through the battlefields… rather than surrender your heads to be played with in the soccer arenas.”
Implicitly, fans were taking to task those governments that had recognised Israel for failing to link normalisation to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In doing so, the fans unwittingly projected Qatar as a more open society. They further positioned the Gulf state as being on the right side of history by refusing to normalize relations with Israel before the Jewish state engaged in a constructive solution to the Palestinian problem.
Qatari tolerance of public support for the Palestinians contrasted starkly with the UAE’s banning of critics from travel and restrictions on expressing pro-Palestinian sentiment in Bahrain.
Emphasis on the Palestinians allowed Qatar to portray itself as a country that enables civil society, albeit only if groups align themselves with the Gulf state’s policies and only when the timing of their activities suits the government.
One group that played a key role in galvanizing fan support for the Palestinians, Qatar Youth Opposed to Normalization (QAYON), discovered that early on as the government sought to bend the group to its will through coercion and intimidation.
Founded in 2011 at the time of Qatari support for popular revolts in the region, QAYON saw in the World Cup an opportunity to bolster its campaign against engaging with Israel.
The government rejected the group’s initial World Cup-related demand that it bars Israelis from attending the tournament in violation of the rules of world soccer body FIFA.
FIFA obliges host countries to allow fans to attend a World Cup irrespective of whether they are from nations the tournament host does not recognise or is at odds with the host country.
Nevertheless, in contrast to spectators whom Qatari security prevented from wearing to matches OneLove armbands favouring LGBTQ rights, a sensitive issue in Qatar, or paraphernalia in support of anti-government protesters in Iran, authorities did nothing to stop QAYON from galvanizing fans attending the World Cup.
Qatar justified its banning of the OneLove armband and anti-Iranian paraphernalia by pointing to FIFA’s ban on all political expression on the pitch.
It’s unclear whether FIFA extended the ban to the pro-Palestine campaign or whether Qatar chose to ignore the FIFA rule selectively.
In the final analysis, Qatar, unlike Morocco, never made it out of the World Cup’s group stage. But like Morocco, it emerges from the World Cup, an off-the-pitch winner.
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Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.