World Cup darling Morocco’s Cinderella run inspires Arab pride while waving the Palestinian flag

Morocco players hold the Palestinian flag while celebrating their victory over Spain during the World Cup round of 16 at the Education City Stadium in Al Rayyan, Qatar, last week. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)

DOHA, Qatar — The horns began tooting and the joyous voices began ringing around 8 pm here on a residential block of Al Aziziya, a multicultural Qatari neighborhood over 3,000 miles away from the 2022 World Cup’s celebratory epicenter.

Morocco, the tournament darling, had just beaten Portugal in a landmark quarterfinal on Saturday. As tension broke into glee at Al Thumama Stadium, and parties began in Rabat and Casablanca, they also erupted throughout Doha, and across an entire soccer-mad region, and among groups of oft-marginalized people all around the globe.

Because Morocco’s semifinal run, the first by an Arab or African team in World Cup history, as a +25000 pre-tournament underdog, has been far more than a source of Moroccan delight.

“We are making our people, a continent, and the Arab world happy,” head coach Walid Regragui said via translator after Saturday’s stunning victory. “We are making the whole world happy.”

They have sparked euphoria in New York, London and Paris, but most of all across North Africa and the Middle East, in places like Gaza that some Westerners associate primarily with conflict. They’ve inspired a region brimming with vibrant people who’ve been oppressed by governments and economic instability, and who are often overlooked and underrepresented in the planet’s most popular sport.

At the region’s first World Cup, Morocco has reignited a Pan-Arab pride that many believed had been fractured by politics or simply gone dormant. And they, the 26 players who’ve come to represent billions of people — Africans, Muslims, immigrants and more — have raised a platform for a multi-pronged rallying cry.

“I support all Muslim countries. We’re all a brotherhood,” a Muslim fan named Shakib, who’d traveled to Qatar from California, told Yahoo Sports a few days after roaring Morocco on to a Round of 16 victory over Spain.

And as he spoke, draped around his neck was one prong, the brotherhood’s unofficial colors, the emblem that has come to signify the pride coalescing around this Moroccan team: the Palestinian flag.

It is everywhere here in Qatar, from Moroccan team photos to the upper deck of Lusail Stadium during a game between Argentina and the Netherlands. It has been waved by fans and politiciansby players and protesters.

“I want to make the statement,” Shakib said, “that people should be aware of what’s going on in Palestine.” He felt that Western media had ignored the Palestinian plight, or painted the Israeli occupation as a both-sides conflict. The World Cup, he said, was the perfect opportunity to amplify the Palestinian cause.

A Morocco fan with his face painted with Moroccan and Palestinian flags watches a live broadcast of the World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between Morocco and Portugal played in Qatar, in Gaza City Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

A Morocco fan with his face painted with Moroccan and Palestinian flags watches a live broadcast of the World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between Morocco and Portugal played in Qatar, in Gaza City on Saturday. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Morocco, ironically, was one of five Muslim-majority countries that signed a 2020 agreement to normalize relations with Israel. But surveys showed, and still show, that the so-called Abraham Accords were wildly unpopular among Moroccans. They were political maneuvers that obscured an on-the-ground reality, a reality that this World Cup has spotlighted: Many Muslims and Arabs still deeply care for Palestinians.

They have descended on Doha to savor the first World Cup in their midst, but also to make this known. They have carried the Palestinian flag through streets and into stadiums, or sported it on T-shirts, armbands and keffiyehs, the traditional headdress. When they’ve encountered Israeli journalists, especially those on live TV, they’ve made their opinions as explicit as could be.

“There’s nothing called Israel, it’s only Palestine, and you just took the land from them,” one fan told an Israeli reporter in a contentious exchange. “Bro, there is nothing called Israel. Israel does not exist.”

They have also broke into song in public spaces, and even at stadiums. Hours after five Palestinians were killed in the occupied West Bank, fans at Qatar’s final match sungin Arabic: “With spirit and blood, we will redeem you, O Palestine.”

Arab teams themselves have centered the Palestinian cause as well, featuring the flag in celebrations. Perhaps emboldened by playing and living on quasi-home soil, with prayer calls wafting over the city and mosques around every corner, in a country where support for the Palestinians and disdain for Israel are wholly uncontroversial, these inherently political statements have proliferated unchallenged. (Critics of FIFA and Qatar, meanwhile, point out that other statements in support or Iranian women and LGBTQ rights have been suppressed, an apparent double-standard.)

Some 1,100 miles away, Palestinians have been touched by the support, and latched onto the Moroccan cause in return. “I swear it’s as if it’s Palestinians that were playing,” one fan told the Associated Press from a massive watch party in Gaza. “All of us are Morocco.”

And all of this will be one legacy of Morocco’s run, which will either continue or conclude against France on Wednesday (2 pm ET, Fox/Telemundo).

It has enabled unfettered public gatherings in a region largely restricted by authoritarian rule.

It has proven that there is shared humanity and common ground among people whose governments often insist on strife.

And its colonial backdrop has not been forgotten. Victories against Belgium, Spain and Portugal have felt like “a revolutionary rebuttal,” as author and Wayne State University professor Khaled Beydoun tweeted. Because for so long, as he wrote, so many Arabs and Muslims walking in a colonized Western world have felt that their “very identity spells ‘other’ or ‘lesser.’”

Here, perhaps more so than ever before at the World Cup, it has been accommodated and welcomed, and most of all associated with tenacious and talented soccer. The wins have, in turn, granted global visibility for Islam. The players’ celebrations, never complete without an on-pitch bow of prayer, have been meaningful, especially to Muslims who practice their religion as a minority in efficiently Christian spaces.

The run has also united Africa, a massive and culturally disparate land mass of 1.4 billion people. Its significance to the continent and to the Arab world have, clearly, been able to coexist.

And that dual-significance has fueled a team of dreamers.

“I think that there was an energy — Africans and the Arab world gave us this energy,” Regragui, the Moroccan coach, said after the quarterfinal. “At that moment, everybody wanted this team to win.”

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