Morocco’s World Cup blitz and what’s underneath

The world has been awe-struck as the Moroccan national team effortlessly cut through this year’s World Cup in Qatar eliminating, one by one, its former colonisers and formidable football opponents. However, while the Atlas Lions roared proudly, and rightfully so, on the pitch, the roar of rioting Moroccan supporters in Belgium, Spain, France and the Netherlands overshadowed the rising Green Star.

It’s fair to say that Morocco’s success streak in this year’s World Cup has garnered international attention. First, they took down Spain with three penalty goals. Then, they took the Portuguese to the cleaners. Now, they are to face off against their ultimate post-colonial boss – France.

Ticking off former colonisers off the list

The allusion to a “vendetta” against former colonisers is not an exaggeration, however ancient certain grudges may be. This kind of vindictive notion could as well apply to other national teams and their supporters, think, for instance, Poland once competing in sports against Russia, before Putin’s unjustified and cruel war against Ukraine rendered it below anybody’s standards to compete against the national team of what many today describe as a state sponsor of terrorism.

What this historically-rooted rivalry translates to for Morocco is a boost of motivation for its national team to push to the limits. For its supporters, however, it offers a kind of therapeutic effect.

The first European colonial power Morocco struggled with was Portugal. The Morocco-Portuguese conflict lasted for 354 years (1415-1769) and saw slavery, bloodshed and exploitation. It is during those years that numerous Moroccan myths and legends emerged that would many years later buttress the country’s independence struggle. One such myth is the character of Aicha Qandicha – a Moroccan “countess” (contessa), according to one interpretation, from El Jadida (Portuguese Mazagan), who helped resist the Portuguese by seducing soldiers, who were then killed by Moroccan fighters lying in wait. A legend has it that she began resisting Colonialism after her husband was killed. Aïcha would have so many men that the soldiers began to fear her and locals believed she had supernatural powers.

Historically, Spain was in Morocco’s black book for the Hispano-Moroccan War of 1859-1860, as a result of which the monarchy recognised Spanish sovereignty over Ceuta and Melilla, the retrocession of Santa Cruz de la Mar Pequeña to Spain and consented to pay 400 million reales as war reparations. The matter of Ceuta and Melilla, in fact, is being raised every now and then by both sides, with Moroccan politicians suggesting, whenever Rabat and Madrid stop seeing eye to eye, that the status of the Spanish enclaves should be revisited. On the other side of the Gibraltar Strait, the populist Spanish VOX party has been many times portraying Ceuta and Melilla as being under imminent threat from “voracious” Moroccan reintegration ambitions, which, in reality, are not something that could or would come to be any time soon if at all.

But Morocco’s true nemesis is France whose colonialism was perhaps the most palpable and remains the most memorised in the free Morocco of today. Under the French protectorate (1912-1956), Moroccans were prevented from attending large political gatherings. French authorities forbade Arabic-language newspapers from covering politics, which sparked claims of censorship. In fact, entire articles were censored from the Istiqlal Party’s Arabic Al-Alam newspaper, which was printed with blocks of missing text.

The French turned Morocco into a granary of Paris in a bid to secure a steady supply of grain for Metropolitan France. They ordered the planting of cereals primarily in the regions of Chaouia, Gharb, and Hawz, despite the fact that the region is prone to drought. Later agricultural production shifted toward irrigated, higher-value crops such as citrus fruits and vegetables. Moroccan labourers toiling away their days in phosphate mines were provided with no social protections, were forbidden from unionising and eked out a tiny fraction of what Europeans earned.

Today, despite the fact that French companies are heavily present in Morocco and the French language continues to be treated as a gate to better pay and life in Europe, younger generations gravitate more toward learning English in defiance of the past and the education system strongly influenced by the French education model. On a side note, the model privileges children from better-off families, as only they can afford paid education.

Riots away from home

In short, challenging and beating Spain, Portugal and, potentially, France, helps Moroccans boost their self-confidence and create a belief that they can face the demons of the past. However, as the two victories showed, the demons can actually manifest in a very dark way abroad contrasting the joyous and ecstatic atmosphere at home.

And fears are that, be it a win or debacle, Moroccan fans will unleash havoc on the streets of European cities.

In Belgium, following Morocco’s victory over the Belgian national team (2-0) in their Group F game, dozens of rioters vandalised cars and electric scooters, setting some on fire. Parts of the capital were sealed off. Police resorted to firing water cannons and tear gas to disperse crowds in Brussels, where around a dozen people were detained. Brussels police spokeswoman Ilse Van de Keere said that the authorities had moved in after one person suffered facial injuries.

“Those are not fans, they are rioters. Moroccan fans are there to celebrate,” Brussels mayor Philippe Close said, as reported by Euronews.

Ahead of the Morocco-Spain match, multiple skirmishes broke out between riot police and Morocco supporters in Qatar. At least three people were dragged away in the most serious trouble of the World Cup. Video footage circulated on social media showed police in riot gear pushing and shoving fans, in fact, crushing them up against a fence, as well as fights breaking out.

Organisers later blamed the trouble on hundreds of ticketless fans, who they said had tried to force their way into Al Rayyan’s Education City stadium. However, others who were caught in the melee insisted they had legitimate tickets – and feared they could have got seriously hurt.

On December 10, in the Netherlands, riot police and police tactical units had to break up clusters of revellers in the four largest cities of the country after celebrations of Morocco’s victory over Portugal (1-0) got out of hand. At the Moskeeplein in the Lombok district of Utrecht, unrest prompted police to deploy their riot units. Rioters began destroying property around Moskeeplein, heavy fireworks were hurled, and people went postal towards the police, NL Times reported.

The police said that what began as a festive atmosphere, unfortunately, deteriorated into a “grim” situation.

Rotterdam saw the riot police intervene near Kruisplein, where mounted police helped disburse the remaining crowd. While the police carried out arrest procedures for setting off heavy fireworks, the officers found themselves under a flurry of rocks. The projectiles were thrown from the area of the West-Kruiskade at the intersection with ‘s-Gravendijkwal.

In Amsterdam, the police called on everyone present on the street Tussen Meer in Amsterdam-Osdorp to leave the area, then an emergency order was issued, which meant anyone who does not respond to the call to leave the area can be arrested.

About 90 minutes after the match, the riot police intervened in the Schilderswijk district in The Hague. An emergency order was issued by the city. This means that people who refuse to comply with police instructions can be arrested. The police called on those in the vicinity of the Vaillantlaan to leave the area and, according to Omroep West, as many as a thousand people were on the street there. Fireworks were thrown at the riot police, bystanders said.

But what may seem like reckless behaviour on the part of Moroccans living abroad and thus, ostensibly, feeling free to wreak havoc at somebody else’s home, may not be the most accurate explanation for the rage. Some Moroccan residents in European countries, such as Belgium, say the confrontations were a manifestation of pent-up tensions of the country’s Moroccan population – the largest non-European ethnic community in the country.

“It is [a result of] frustration” Mohamed El Marcouchi, a Belgian boxing champion of Moroccan descent, told DW.

Born and raised in Molenbeek, a Brussels municipality known historically for its North African migrant population and gone infamous for being “a hotspot for international terrorism” as described by some, the 33-year-old recalls: “when I was young, it was like a cat and mouse game with the police.”

“There was always discrimination against Moroccan people. If something happens, it is the Moroccans. They [police] have an image that we are bad people,” he told DW. “Since I was in school, the image has always been that if something bad happened, we did it.”

As noted by Nadia Fadil from the University of Leuven, it is crucial “to understand the history of the complicated relationship between the youngsters and the police,” which “predates the World Cup.”

Ever since 1964, when a pertinent bilateral agreement was signed, Morocco has been a major supplier of workers to the small western European country of Belgium. By 2012, almost 500,000 Moroccan migrants had made it to Belgium. Nearly half of them acquired Belgian citizenship. Belgians of Moroccan descent now account for roughly 13 percent of the capital’s population.

Fadil stresses that the population is by no means homogeneous, with a large portion of the community remaining working class typically living in neighbourhoods like Molenbeek. These areas are characterised by high degrees of poverty, crime and youth unemployment. The researcher argues that their experience of being policed is radically different from that of other groups, or even Moroccans or Moroccan-Belgians living in less precarious neighbourhoods.

And the Belgian police developing a preconception that there is going to be trouble whenever Morocco plays does not help the situation, according to Fadil.

The Green Star effect

Whether one should understand the intricacies of socioeconomic conditions that Moroccans live in abroad before making a judgement about whether it is right to set things on fire and throw stones and fireworks at people remains, perhaps, debatable.

One can, however, easily agree that the viewers of the World Cup, and the aftermath of each match the Moroccan national team plays, are experiencing a sort of Green Star effect. On one hand, they are dazzled by the Moroccan performance on the pitch, while on the other finding it difficult to comprehend why the unrestrained outpour of negativity from Moroccan supporters abroad.

Moroccans at home feel positively ecstatic. They also welcome foreigners, including diplomats, cheering for their national team. One of them is Polish Ambassador to Morocco Krzysztof Karwowski, who, sporting a jersey in Moroccan colours with his surname printed on the back, joined Moroccans in the street of Rabat to celebrate their last victory over Portugal.

“The Atlas Lions amaze the whole world, and I wish them to play in the World Cup final,” he told Poland’s private broadcaster Polsat. “I envy Morocco with its wonderful atmosphere, which I remember from my childhood, when the Polish Eagles amazed the world in 1974, 1978 and 1982.

The silent bias

While much of the world waits with batted breath for Wednesday’s standoff between Morocco and France, with the Polish Embassy in Paris suggesting Polish nationals stay home during the evening to avoid being caught in clashes between Moroccan fans and police, there’s one last theme that often goes unnoticed in the buzz.

As Moroccan journalist Ahmed El Jechtimi, who writes his name in Amazigh on Facebook (ⵃⵎⴰⴷ ⴰⴳⵛⵜⵉⵎ) noted in a post on the social media platform, “whenever a Moroccan athlete wins in international competitions, they suddenly become an Arab, and when they lose, they are described as Moroccan by the Arab media.”

“Did they [the media] read the constitution of Morocco and did they tour its cities and villages and study its history, the mentality of its people and its languages, whether it is Amazigh or Darija? Or is this quest to Arabize the national team a projection of an Arab nationalist dream of sporting dominance over what remains of North Africa after decades of Arabizing people and the field? Is it logical to say that Senegal, for example, is a French country because they speak French, and have you heard the English say about the Canadian team that it is an English or French team? Or is Belgium a Flemish or French team?” he wrote.

“The national team, for Moroccans, is an embodiment and celebration of the principle of unity in diversity, which is the core of our being and our culture, without exception for any component of our Moroccan identity!”

The Moroccans won’t have the chance to play against any Arab rival in this World Cup. Maybe they’ll enjoy the opportunity next time. But before it comes to this, there’s France they need to take on. And this will leave a mark.

It’s either win or lose.



Arab Observer

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