Morocco mourns loss to France after World Cup run that energized region

AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti
Morocco fans react as they watch the semifinal match against France in the World Cup, in Barcelona, Spain Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022.

CAIRO – Moroccans were devastated but still proud Wednesday after their national soccer team lost, 2-0, to France in the World Cup semifinals – dashing hopes for an upset that would have sent the first Arab and African club to the tournament’s final match.

A Moroccan win would also have been historic in a more profound sense. France controlled Morocco as a protectorate for more than four decades until the country’s independence in 1956. More recently, the countries were locked in a diplomatic dispute after France limited visas for Moroccans, leaving citizens of the North African country especially hungry for a triumph against their former colonizer.

“A taste of victory against France would really make a lot of angry Moroccans happy,” Ali Hamioui said before the match. “They’ve been denying us visas left and right and treating us as second class. This would be a nice revenge.”

After the loss, Moroccan fan Yousra Marrou lamented the outcome – and the opponent – in the capital of Rabat, where he joined crowds that gathered to grieve together.

“I wished [the match] were against anyone else,” he said.

“It’s a huge blow,” said Ahmed Ofir, 23, who was also looking for consolation on the streets of Rabat. “For a team who isn’t used to winning and is suddenly exposed to victory, we did not want to stop.”

His friend Oussam Semlali said even though Morocco didn’t advance to the final, the country was still celebrating.

“The ball simply didn’t want to score. Our team tried hard,” he said. “We were extraordinarily represented. The team did not let go.”

Morocco’s loss Wednesday brought an end to a remarkable World Cup run that energized and united much of Africa and the Middle East, where fans largely came together to support the underdog team that managed to knock off two of its other former colonizers, Spain and Portugal, en route to the semifinals.

As other Arab and African countries were eliminated in earlier stages, the region’s fan base redirected its attention toward Morocco – celebrating the country’s Arab, African and Amazigh heritage. The move by Moroccan players to raise the Palestinian flag also drew accolades across the Arab world. Scenes of players celebrating with their families, including some with their mothers who attended the matches in Qatar, tugged at heartstrings and made the team a sentimental favorite.

In Morocco, the run brought people together in a country that needed something to celebrate.

The last time Hamioui, 30, remembers the country feeling so united was last February, when the plight of a 5-year-old boy who fell down a dry well captured the nation’s attention. For days, efforts to rescue him were live-streamed internationally. When he didn’t make it out alive, a nation’s hope turned to devastation.

“This time we are happy,” Hamioui said. “We deserve to be united in happiness. Moroccans are hungry for happiness.”

The engineer said the team’s World Cup run has provided some of the best days of his life and that the mood in the country was “unlike anything” he has ever experienced. He desperately wanted to be in Qatar for the semifinal game Wednesday, but couldn’t miss work. “I would have spent all my money to go,” he said ruefully.

The match was also followed closely by members of the Moroccan diaspora, numbering some 5 million, many of whom live in France and other parts of Western Europe.

Along the Champs-Élysées, the 1.2-mile-long avenue in the heart of Paris, convoys of honking cars blocked the streets late Wednesday night.

As France supporters headed to the Arc de Triomphe, some wore rooster hats, the French team’s emblem.

Thousands of police officers were deployed to this area in expectation of potential clashes between France and Morocco supporters, and riot police officers were on patrol. But by 11 p.m. local time, most fans, whatever their allegiance, appeared to be in a celebratory mood.

Back in downtown Rabat, Oumaima Moutik, 24, said before the match that the last time he felt so good was after he recovered from covid-19 and emerged from isolation. At that time, “I looked at the streets from a new perspective,” he said. “I am now doing the same. Everything feels so fresh and renewed.”

Ali Cheradi, a high school English teacher in Rabat, said he was reliving the country’s 1986 World Cup run – which took place when he was a child – with his own children.

Then, he, his father and his siblings crowded around an old radio. Now, he said, he is “imparting to [my children] the same love for football and the nation that I had experienced as a child their age.”

“The happiness is really indescribable,” he said. “I’ve taken pictures, hugged, danced and sang with random strangers.”

He planned to watch Wednesday’s game at home with his family. No matter the outcome, he said, they would flood the streets to honor their team’s run.

“Win or lose,” he said, “today will be a celebration.”