Morocco and France’s World Cup match offers something politics could never deliver

Morocco's Hakim Ziyech, foreground, fights for the ball with Portugal's Ruben Dias during the World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between Morocco and Portugal, at Al Thumama Stadium in Doha, Qatar, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022. Petr David Josek/AP
Morocco's Hakim Ziyech, foreground, fights for the ball with Portugal's Ruben Dias during the World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between Morocco and Portugal, at Al Thumama Stadium in Doha, Qatar, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022. Petr David Josek/AP

History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history”, wrote James Baldwin in a world that branded his Blackness as inhuman.

On Wednesday, on a field in the middle of the Middle East and on the edge of history, Morocco will embody history for itself as the first African and Arab nation to make it to the World Cup semifinals since the tournament began in 1930. Morocco’s national soccer team will face off against France, defending champion and former colonial power.

France is favored to win this match, but more importantly, a globe of people who see themselves in their players in between the boundaries of Africa and beyond the outstretched arms of the formerly colonized world will see a team announcing, fearlessly and faithfully, that we are not your inferiors.

Morocco’s celebrated run of World Cup victories has been, in some ways, vicarious vindication against Belgium and Spain, Portugal and France – the most formidable of its former colonial overlords and present footballing foes. While much of France remains largely trapped within a dark history of its own making, Morocco is remaking its own history, claiming its place in the world and the World Cup.

Players named Hakim Ziyech, Achraf Hakimi and Sofiane Boufal reversed the French pipeline of poaching Africa’s footballing talent to pursue World Cup gold. Through steadfast play during five matches, followed by spiritual displays where the bowed heads of these footballers kissed hallowed fields then heads of their head-scarved mothers, the Moroccan team’s courage inspired a march toward history that is only one step away from football immortality, win or lose.

As Morocco prepares for its semifinal match in Qatar, it stares ahead and sees France: an eclectic team revered for its modern football dominance, but for many in Africa and the eyes of the formerly colonized world, an old empire reviled for its history.

Moroccans make up nearly one-fifth of the immigrant population in France, living in the heart of its cities and on the fringes of French society.

Surviving between the lines of hijab bans and xenophobia, Moroccans in France – much like their Algerian and Tunisian counterparts from the Maghreb – are liminals. Or, in in the words of the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said, perpetually “out of place” in a France that deems them eternal outsiders.

Many Marocains Francais are stuck inside an existential play where being Moroccan negates the possibility of being either fully or formally French – a tale so essentially French that is has been immortalized by its iconic authors in novels where nameless Arabs were killed by strangers on Algerian beaches. It’s a country where striker Karim Benzema lamented in 2011, “I am French when I score, and Arab when I don’t”.

Zinedine Zidane, the undisputed star of the 1998 French side that won the nation’s first World Cup, stands as a cautionary tale shrouded with French ruffles. After he defeated overwhelming favorite Brazil, Zidane’s chiseled face shone across the Arc de Triumph: the son of Algerian immigrants projected upon one of France’s most recognizable totems.

The story was so monumental at the time, pushing many in France to champion Zidane and his team as symbols unity for FIFA and France. This fleeting symbolism was tarnished by the racism directed at Zidane, and Black and Arab teammates, by many in France, most notably Jean-Marine Le Pen of the political right who cast them as not a truly “French” team.

France’s colonial past found new life with the racism encircling the football team, colored by a mutiny led by its African-born players in 2010 and a second championship run in 2018 spearheaded by Adil Rami and N’golo Kante, Kylian Mbappe and Paul Pogba – Africans and immigrants, Muslims and members of marginalized communities seen by many as not legitimately French.

While the 1998 team’s symbolism of unity faded from memory, the 2018 team – many of whom will be on the field again defending France’s title in Qatar – served as an admission that France needed the children of colonialism to lift World Cup gold.

The victories of 1998 and 2018, therefore, were also indictments of France’s imperial past, because they moved many to brand the title holders “Africa’s championship team”, which placed the shadow of French colonial history around the brightest moments of its football glory.

When Les Bleus faces off against Morocco on Wednesday, many French nationals of Amazigh and Arab origin, of Black skin and African roots, will collectively root against the black and blue history of France when staring at their screens. That’s because French football is in many ways a mirror for a society fractured by colonial pasts and calamitous presents. The Moroccan team is its very antithesis: representing an African nation that lifted itself from 44 years of colonialism from France.

France, for all of its colonial plunder and footballing splendor, has long been a team that divides, one so tinged with political fracture that former President Nicolas Sarkozy held a meeting with the French Football Federation in 2008 following a match against Tunisia in Paris to demand no more matches be played on French soil against the national teams of former colonies from north Africa.

Morocco, on the other hand and on the other side of history, has emerged as a team that unites those former colonies and builds bridges to others inspired by their play. And beyond its representational significance, the team has galvanized the entire continent of Africa, the global constellation of Muslims and the disparate network of once colonized peoples ready to take on the world and remake it in its vision. For at least one night, at the World Cup in Qatar, the scars of imperial history will be covered by Moroccan red and green.

Looking forward – for Morocco and the legions of fans rising to its side from nations decimated by French imperialism – compels them to look backward. A football match against France is never just football, particularly for the people of Algeria and the Ivory Coast, Tunisia and Togo. Many in these nations see the color of occupation and violence in Les Bleus, and the postcolonial passages of racism that lord over the Parisian banlieues (ghettoes) overpacked with Algerians and Senegalese, Malians and Moroccans.

The semifinal match between Morocco and France is historic, in ways that the word cannot do it justice. But for those old loyalists watching from the slums of Marseilles or the squares of Marrakesh, and new fans rising from the Global South and the formerly colonized world, justice is what they will be seeking. Football offers them what political realities do not, an opportunity to defeat the shadow of colonialism atop the field of play.

For at least one night, and if Morocco makes even more history, one final time this Sunday.

Khaled A. Beydoun is a law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit covering the World Cup in Qatar. He is the author of the forthcoming book, The New Crusades: Islamophobia and the Global War on Muslims. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

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