Why underdog Morocco is ‘the Rocky of this World Cup’

The Corniche, the 4½-mile waterfront promenade that winds around Doha Bay, has become a gathering place for fans at the World Cup in Qatar. When the tournament started three weeks ago, the canary yellow of Brazil, the iconic green of Mexico and the blue and white stripes of Argentina were everywhere.

With only four teams left, the main color you see now is the tomato red of Morocco.

At the first World Cup in the Middle East and the first to be held in a Muslim-majority country, Morocco made history by becoming the first African and first Arabic-speaking nation to reach the semi-finals. And that’s what made it an inspiration for Wednesday’s game against France, the one-time colonial rulers of Morocco.

“All Arabs support them,” said Nizar Ahmad, a 27-year-old nurse from Jordan, as he and a friend strolled along the bay on a comparatively cool desert night. “We have an Arab country as one of the best in the world.”

The fact that Morocco straddles these worlds adds to the appeal. Geographically, Morocco is a North African country – one that FIFA, the global governing body for football, has included in the 54-strong Confederation of African Football. But culturally and linguistically it belongs to the Arab world.

The team has adopted both identities.

“I’m not here to be a politician. We want to fly the African flag as high as Senegal, Ghana and Cameroon,” said Paris-born Moroccan coach Walid Regragui. “We are here to represent Africa.”

Meanwhile, winger Sofiane Boufal, who was born in France and still plays club football there, dedicated a recent win to “all Arab people and all Muslim people”.

The split dates back almost two centuries when Arabic speakers in the Middle East and North Africa began to identify with a single Arabic culture based primarily on language. This affinity is why people from all 22 countries in the Arab world, from Oman in the east to Algeria in the west, have put aside their political differences when it comes to cheering for Morocco.

“We are the Rocky of this World Cup. When you see “Rocky” you want to support Rocky Balboa. Now the world is with Morocco.”

— Morocco coach Walid Regragui

“Morocco’s success at the World Cup is seen as a success for all Arab nations as well as North African nations,” said Mounah Abdel-Samad, a San Diego State professor who has written on Arab world politics and culture. “Many US viewers might think of the oil-rich Gulf nations when they think of the Middle East, but… Morocco’s success is allowing Arab and North African countries to recover from daily economic and social challenges, giving them hope and pride as they do on the international stage and in the world.” world stage can be successful.”

Just hours after Morocco’s 1-0 quarter-final wins over Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal on Saturday, the phenomenal jump that made Youssef En-Nesyri possible Heading the only goal of the game had become a metaphor for the kind of Arab ambition that Morocco’s success symbolizes.

Fans in Rabat, Morocco, celebrate after their national team defeated Canada 2-1 and qualified for the knockout stages of the World Cup

Fans in Rabat, Morocco, celebrate after their national team defeated Canada 2-1 to qualify for the knockout stages of the World Cup on December 1st.

(Mosa’ab Elahmy/Associated Press)

“The Arabs have proven that they can jump and fly and soar, not just in sports but in all aspects of life if they have the will and determination,” Jordanian commentator Ziad Nabulsi wrote on Facebook. “Congratulations to Morocco and all Arabs and I say that winning the World Cup itself is not impossible.”

People celebrated Saturday’s victory by taking to the streets of Amman, Cairo, Casablanca, Tunis, Kuwait City, Gaza and cities across the West Bank to celebrate. Even Palestinian Israelis in Jerusalem raised the Moroccan flag in a collective rejoicing that seems to have revived a pan-Arab spirit many said was as good as dead.

In fact, one of the most visible banners at World Cup matches was the Palestinian black-white-green-red flag.

Palestinians in Gaza City wave Moroccan and their national flags while watching a live broadcast of a World Cup quarterfinals

Palestinians in Gaza City wave Moroccan and their national flags while watching a live broadcast of the World Cup quarterfinals on Saturday.

(Fatima Shbair/Associated Press)

Palestinians in the West Bank city of Nablus wave Moroccan and Palestinian flags as they watch Morocco play Portugal

Palestinians in the West Bank city of Nablus wave Moroccan and Palestinian flags as they watch Morocco play Portugal in the semi-finals of the World Cup.

(Majdi Mohammed/Associated Press)

“Reaching the semifinals gives not only Moroccans, but Arabs everywhere a chance to be proud of their culture and their region,” said Jessica Marglin, professor of religion, law and history at USC. “In the past, Arabs across the region have expressed their solidarity with the Palestinians. So supporting Morocco is also a chance for Arabs to express common ground in supporting the Palestinians.”

The desire to retaliate against the former colonial powers of Africa and the Middle East has also played a significant role in increasing Morocco’s attractiveness for the World Cup.

Three of the countries Morocco defeated here – Belgium, Spain and Portugal – were harsh rulers over much of the region for centuries. Next is France, which violently conquered Morocco in the early 20th century and only restored independence to its people in 1956.

“The colonial dimension couldn’t be more important,” Marglin said. “France’s colonial legacy casts a long shadow over both countries, so this game definitely has symbolism that goes beyond just wanting to make it to the final. It’s going to be emotional, especially for Moroccans living in France – many of whom not only have dual citizenship but also a sense of dual identity.”

“Morocco deserves everyone’s recognition. When you play against the teams they faced, who had their results and conceded just one goal in five games, you can no longer say it’s a surprise.”

— France coach Didier Deschamps

This dual identity and the spread of the Moroccan diaspora across Europe and the Middle East is reflected in Morocco’s squad, as 14 of its 26 players and most of its coaches were born outside of Morocco.

When searching for symbolism, however, one must not lose sight of the fact that the Moroccan team is good. In five games, the only result came from an own goal – a Moroccan defender, Nayef Aguerd, who accidentally deflected into his team’s net in the first half of a group stage win against Canada.

Regragui, 47, a former national team defender who was dropped from the Moroccan league coaching ranks in August, was seen as overwhelmed when he took on the task of cleaning up the toxic environment created by ex-coach Vahid Halilhodzic less than three months before the World Cup.

Morocco have not lost since then, beating three of the world’s top nine teams at the World Cup.

Regragui achieved this by convincing his players to engage in a selfless team game in which Morocco relinquished possession and endured relentless offensive attacks while patiently waiting for the opposition to make a mistake.

Morocco coach Walid Regragui, front, and his players and staff celebrate after beating Portugal

Morocco coach Walid Regragui (front) and his players and staff celebrate after beating Portugal in Saturday’s World Cup quarterfinal match.

(Martin Meissner/Associated Press)

That’s why Morocco’s 13 shots and five goals are the lowest of any of the four semi-finalists – but it’s also why Morocco are one of only two unbeaten teams in Qatar.

France coach Didier Deschamps, who won the World Cup four years ago and must get past Morocco to return to the final, said his opponent’s success was no accident.

“Morocco deserves everyone’s credit,” he said. “When you play against the teams they faced, who got their results and conceded just one goal in five games, you can no longer say it’s a surprise.

“You deserve to be there.”

Regragui has embraced his team’s longshot status by comparing them to the ultimate underdog.

“We’re the Rocky of this World Cup,” he said. “When you see ‘Rocky,’ you want to support Rocky Balboa. Now the world is with Morocco.

“We have made our people and our continent so happy and proud.”

In the original film, Rocky lost a split decision to Apollo Creed – who, like France, was the reigning champion. After his team’s win over Portugal, Regragui said there was no reason to believe Morocco couldn’t write a new ending to history.

“Why shouldn’t we dream of becoming world champions?” he said. “It doesn’t cost you anything to have dreams.”

Reporting from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, staff writer Nabih Bulos contributed to this story.

https://www.latimes.com/sports/soccer/story/2022-12-12/world-cup-underdog-morocco-france-semifinal Why underdog Morocco is ‘the Rocky of this World Cup’

Emma Bowman

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