- Majdi Abdel Hadi
- North African Analyst
The World Cup hosted by Qatar this year witnessed unprecedented controversy.
The controversy varied from the decision to grant Qatar the privilege of hosting the sporting event, regardless of its poor record in the field of human rights, until the last moment when the Emir of Qatar placed an Arab cloak on the shoulders of the Argentine football legend, Lionel Messi, before he was about to raise the World Cup on Sunday. Past.
However, one controversy has received little or no attention outside the North African region.
It started by asking a simple question: What is the description of the Moroccan national team, the “Atlas Lions”, who surprised the whole world with their outstanding performance, defying the odds after they defeated high-caliber teams such as Spain and Portugal? Is it the first “Arab” or “African” team to reach the semi-finals?
Culturally, many Moroccans see themselves as Arabs rather than Africans, and some Africans in the Sahara region of Morocco complain of racist attitudes.
However, statements made by Moroccan player Sofiane Boufal, after his country’s victory over Spain in the World Cup, sparked a widespread debate about the country’s identity on the continent, as he thanked “all Moroccans around the world, and all Arabs and Muslims for their support.” , adding, “This win is for you.”
After a backlash on social media platforms, the player apologized on Instagram for not mentioning the African continent’s support for the team, a support previously expressed by Nigerian President, Muhammadu Buhari, when he stated that Morocco had “made the entire continent proud with its determination and ingenuity”.
Correcting the situation, Boufal wrote: “I also dedicate the victory to you, of course. We are proud to represent all our brothers on the continent. Together.”
The loud reactions reflect those recent efforts made by the king to encourage the establishment of close relations with the rest of the African continent. My country and I will return home”, and this rapprochement allowed commercial relations to flourish, especially with the countries of West Africa.
However, Morocco is also a member of the League of Arab States, so it officially belongs to both cultures.
Although the use of the adjective “African” when describing Morocco is a geographical fact, the use of the word “Arab” has resented many Moroccans who do not see it.
Morocco includes a large number of Berbers, as they prefer to be called, and some statistics indicate that they represent about 40 percent of the country’s population, numbering more than 34 million people, and one of the Berber languages, “Tamazight”, is now recognized as an official language. In addition to the Arabic language.
This controversy was not a spur of the moment, but rather extended for a long time. Immediately after Qatar was awarded the privilege to host the 2022 World Cup, its media portrayed the event as a “victory for Islam and Arabism,” as headlines indicated in 2010.
With the start of the tournament, the vocabulary of Arab nationalism and Islamism came to the fore, as did a debate about banning alcohol or using the “One Love” badge of the LGBT community. Defenders of Islamism and Arabism came out to defend Qatar, Islam, and traditions against the “imperialist West.”
However, the initial framing of the event, by the Qatari media, as an “Islamic or Arab conquest”, which went largely unnoticed, sparked angry reactions when it became part of the commentary language of matches.
So when the Atlas Lions made history as the first team from Africa and the Middle East to qualify for the semi-finals of the World Cup, it was hailed as a victory for Islamic and Arab countries.
After other teams from the countries of the region, such as Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, left early from the tournament, it was only natural for football fans from neighboring countries to rally behind Morocco.
However, some sought to portray the Moroccan success as something much larger, more ideological and political, and as a result the Moroccan team was seen as the bearer of the banner of Islam and Arabism.
This argument was reinforced when some of the Moroccan team’s players celebrated their victory and raised the Palestinian flag on the field.
This kind of rhetoric has angered many in North Africa, especially Moroccans who do not agree with these ideologies.
In an hour-long angry video, a Moroccan dissident on YouTube criticized those who sought to “politicize” the game and turn it into a global culture war.
Brother Rachid, whose channel has 385,000 followers, said that half of the Moroccan team, including their coach, were in fact born and raised in Europe. They are the children of Moroccan immigrants, who learned the game and became professional soccer players in Europe.
He added, “If you do an analysis of the DNA of the Moroccan team, you will find that most of them are Berbers. Most of them do not speak Arabic, and if that happens, it will be a poor Arabic language because they lived in the West.”
The role of Islam and freedom of expression are sensitive issues in Morocco, as the royal family considers itself to be descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, and the king retains the title of Commander of the Faithful, a historical title for the first Muslim rulers. Despite this, the YouTube dissident was not afraid to address such thorny issues.
For example, he said, “Morocco is different from the Middle East, because it is basically an Amazigh society. The Arabs came to it as strangers in the seventh century (AD). Today, there are Arabs, Berbers, Muslims, Jews, atheists, irreligious, and Baha’is. There are Shiites and Sunnis.”
And he considered that describing this Moroccan success as “a victory for Arabism and Islam is an attack on the various components of Moroccan society,” he said.
In response to Arab nationalists or Islamists who sought to hijack the Moroccan victory and use it for their own purposes, several posts on social media called for a return to viewing the team as Moroccan. Some also published pictures of the team containing Berber symbols.
Other opponents highlighted the absurdity of turning the football game into a religious or ethnic war, arguing that it is unreasonable to consider a victory for France, Brazil or Argentina as a victory for Christianity.
They indicated that this would be impossible, given the ethnic and religious mix within some national football teams in Europe for example.
The controversy over the real identity of the Moroccan national team is the latest manifestation of the “cultural war” that has been waged for decades in North Africa and the Middle East.
National identity was based on two ideologies, Islam and Arab nationalism, that shaped political discourse in the region for decades.
And although this was significant during the struggle for national liberation, i.e. the prioritization of social cohesion over individual freedom, it seems to have outgrown the bounds of usefulness and has become irrelevant in an increasingly globalized world, as evidenced by the dispute over a football match.