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World Cup success gives Moroccan diaspora chance to celebrate cultural roots

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Jamel Debbouze, one of France’s most famous stand-up comedians, could not come up with a joke when asked how he felt about France facing Morocco in the World Cup.

“I want to see the match but I’m also dreading it,” the 47-year-old dual national who was born in Paris to parents from Morocco said in a television interview. “It is as if my father was playing my mother! An impossible dilemma.”

Many in France’s large Moroccan community will be feeling such intense emotions about Wednesday’s semi-final after the Atlas Lions became the first African team to reach this stage of the tournament.

Their success has inspired fervour well beyond the North African kingdom and its 5mn-strong diaspora because many people in the Middle East, Africa and parts of Asia, particularly Muslims, have adopted the team. Entrenched political rivalries between countries faded into a shared sense of pride as the Lions upset Belgium, Spain, and Portugal.

The match against France, however, casts a spotlight on a very particular historical relationship.

Morocco was a French protectorate from 1912 to 1954, although two slivers of the country were under Spanish influence. After independence, which preceded France’s bitter war and end of its colonial rule in neighbouring Algeria, many Moroccans were recruited to work in French mines and factories, where they contributed to the postwar economic boom.

People from Morocco or with Moroccan parents are now the second-largest immigrant group in France after those of Algerian descent, and the diaspora also has a big presence in Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium. Many in the second and third generations are citizens of the European countries in which they now live.

This World Cup has given them a rare chance to openly celebrate their cultural heritage. This is particularly the case in France, where far-right political parties are on the rise and the ethos of the French republic urges people to see themselves as citizens first and to leave religion, race or cultural differences in the private sphere.

After Morocco beat Portugal on Saturday, about 25,000 fans converged on the Champs-Élysées in Paris to celebrate. Among the many red and green Moroccan flags were some from Algeria, Tunisia, and Palestine in a sign of how the team has become a vehicle for people to convey a broader sense of Arab and African pride.

In Brussels, each Moroccan victory has brought crowds with flares and fireworks on to the streets. Bilal Abdoun, an office manager whose grandparents emigrated to Belgium, said the Lions had moved him close to tears. Their performance would improve the self-confidence and reputation of the Moroccan community abroad, he predicted.

“We have this image of Moroccans that steal and cause trouble on the street,” Abdoun said. “But now we showed the good face of Morocco. The players have this power.”

Morocco’s coach Walid Regragui is thrown in the air by his players after their win on Saturday. He describes them as a ‘milkshake’ side, a blend of Moroccan talent imprinted with other football cultures © Martin Meissner/AP

The squad has strong ties to the diaspora too. Fourteen of the 26 players in Qatar were born outside Morocco, the highest proportion of any team in the tournament. These include Madrid-born star Achraf Hakimi, who scored the winning penalty against Spain.

Coach Walid Regragui, born in the Paris suburb of Corbeil-Essonnes, has vaunted the merits of what he called a “milkshake” side: a blend of Moroccan talent imprinted by other football cultures.

“I think that from now on the whole world is behind Morocco,” Regragui said on Saturday.

In France, some scenes from Morocco’s victories have struck a particular chord. A video of Sofiane Boufal, a Paris-born player, dancing on the pitch after the quarter-final with his mother who was wearing a Muslim headscarf went viral.

“Seeing that video made me so happy as if my mother, grandmother and aunts were out there celebrating,” said Amina Touil, a 23-year-old who grew up just outside Paris and whose parents are from Casablanca.

But the video was also laden with significance in staunchly secular France. The French have restrictive legislation on the wearing of religious symbols and garments — they are banned in schools and for civil servants — and the Muslim headscarf has often been fodder for culture wars.

“Having mothers sitting in the stadium praying for the sons and players praying on the field — it’s natural for the Moroccan team and fine in Qatar, but it would not have been so positively received had the World Cup happened in France,” said Sahar Amarir, a French and Moroccan citizen who works at a political risk management company.

Sofiane Boufal and his mother dancing on the pitch
Moroccan player Sofiane Boufal dances with his mother on the pitch after the quarter-final. A video of their dancing later went viral © Luca Bruno/AP

The Morocco fans’ celebrations in Europe sparked a backlash from far-right parties and commentators, including after the partying in Brussels and Antwerp triggered clashes with the police. Damien Rieu, a French far-right social media influencer, warned riots would break out when France played Morocco, calling it a clash of civilisations.

In an interview, interior minister Gérald Darmanin dismissed the idea the match was a “battle of identities” and promised a beefed-up presence of 2,000 police officers on the Champs-Élysées on Wednesday to ensure fans could enjoy the “festive moment” in an orderly manner.

Eric Zemmour, who ran in this year’s French presidential election on an anti-immigration platform, criticised the celebrations as being unpatriotic. “I just think it’s weird that there are people who are supposedly French who are celebrating Morocco’s victory on the day that France also won,” he said.

Rachid Zerrouki, a 30-year-old teacher in Marseille who moved to France from Morocco in his teens, said such thinking was out of step with the experience of millions of people who have mixed backgrounds.

“In France it’s not easy to be multicultural, and maybe this moment can help change that a bit,” he said. In any case, nothing would wreck his enjoyment of the match. “It’s amazing that my two countries have gone so far in the World Cup. Whatever happens, I’ll be in the final!”

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