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Morocco’s World Cup win lifts a legion of Arab fans

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 12/7/2022 Kareem Fahim
Fans of Morocco celebrate after Morocco won against Spain, at the Souq Waqif market in Doha, Qatar, Tuesday. © Martin Divisek/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock Fans of Morocco celebrate after Morocco won against Spain, at the Souq Waqif market in Doha, Qatar, Tuesday.

RAYYAN, Qatar — As fans streamed out of a silver, pulsing stadium, minutes after Morocco’s dramatic and emotional victory over Spain on penalty kicks, Emad Benmoussa felt more than just pride in his team, the euphoria of the moment, the fatigue of traveling eight hours on a plane to see a soccer match and having to decide, now that they had won, whether to do it all again.

He was also part of something greater.

“You could feel the whole stadium was chanting for Morocco — Syrians and Egyptians and Palestinians, the entire Arab world,” he said. “It feels really — natural.”

At the World Cup, the Arab world rallies to Palestinian cause

For others, a sense of Middle Eastern solidarity that has come to define this year’s tournament has been a surprise, if a pleasant one, bringing together citizens whose governments have sometimes been hostile to one other, or who have traveled from far-flung corners of the region and seldom get to interact.

A sense of camaraderie, fans said, stemmed from a mixture of pride at what Qatar had accomplished — as the first Arab and Muslim-majority nation to host the tournament — and as the World Cup has gone on, at the surprisingly strong showings by some of the Arab teams.

For some, the feelings evoked an earlier era of Pan-Arab nationalism, even if the identities of the teams participating were more complicated, with fans also claiming ties to the Persian Gulf or Africa, for example. Encounters between Arab citizens who traveled from their countries and mingled with fellow citizens living abroad have nurtured the sense of community.

The fans’ gatherings, at stadiums or elsewhere in Qatar’s capital, have at times felt something like a public square — a place to air passions, or grievances — in a region where such spaces have increasingly been erased, often by nervous governments.

Fans cheer as Morroco defeats defeat Spain on Tuesday. © Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post Fans cheer as Morroco defeats defeat Spain on Tuesday.

Fans said that in recent weeks, conversations across the region have focused on the excitement of the latest match by an Arab team, or giddy anticipation of the next, even by people who cared little about soccer. Through it all, a narrative of the World Cup emerged that was wholly different from the one heard in Europe and elsewhere, where the focus has been on the abuses suffered by migrant workers who prepared the tournament’s infrastructure, and the general lack of suitability of Qatar as a host.

Qatar had been “amazing,” said Essam Maanouri, 25. “For three weeks, you see hospitality. You see great stadiums. For me as an Arab, this Arab cup is great.”

“There’s clearly something different in the air — this sort of inter-Arab solidarity, you could see it all over the place,” said Marwan M. Kraidy, the dean and chief executive of Northwestern University in Qatar. It was apparent in the streets and on social media, and emanated from the “bottom up,” he said, rather than being orchestrated by governments, or other official organizations like soccer clubs.

There was the novelty too, of people from all over the Arab world attending a tournament hosted in an Arab country, he said. “People are genuinely excited. It’s emerging out of a passion for the game.”

The conviviality surfaced right from the beginning of the tournament, as fans from Saudi Arabia showed up to support Qatar’s opening match. At the stadium, Qatar’s emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, hosted two former enemies: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi, whose governments participated in a blockade of Qatar that lasted for nearly four years.

The meeting was one of several diplomatic initiatives during the tournament that added to a sense of regional comity. In interviews, though, few fans mentioned the diplomacy as a spark for solidarity, suggesting leaders were taking cues from their people, rather than the other way around.

Leaders across the region also noticed, at that first match and at nearly all of them since, the prominent display of Palestinian flags at the World Cup. They were held aloft by Qataris, wrapped around the necks of Tunisians or draped on the shoulders of Moroccan players, their ubiquity undermining assertions that the Arab world had abandoned the Palestinian cause.

Morocco's team makes a group photo on the pitch, holding the Palestinian flag, after winning the World Cup round against Spain, Tuesday. © Martin Meissner/AP Morocco's team makes a group photo on the pitch, holding the Palestinian flag, after winning the World Cup round against Spain, Tuesday.

In the flag displays, even as several Arab countries have pursued diplomatic relations with Israel, “you can see the real reaction from the people of the region,” said Ahmed Saber, 27, a Palestinian who was born in Qatar. “Not from the governments.”

Qatar’s tolerance of political displays only went so far: Iranian fans who wore T-shirts or otherwise showed support for a nationwide protest movement back in Iran were removed, in several instances, from stadiums during the tournament.

The feelings of pride and common purpose intensified after Saudi Arabia recorded a shocking defeat over Argentina early in the tournament. “Of course it was a regional win,” said Ehab al-Kindi, who works in real estate and attended Saudi Arabia’s next match, against Poland, with his 5-year-old son. “Any Arab victory gets support. We like that feeling,” he said.

If you think Morocco’s fans emoted, you should’ve seen the news conference

It continued after strong showings by Tunisia, beginning with a draw against Denmark and ending with a win against France, though the team failed to advance to the next round. At the Denmark match, Zinedine Bziouech, 18, who had traveled with a friend from Tunisia, marveled at Qatar’s achievement, which seemed to signal what was possible.

“Arab countries are watchers, spectators,” he said. “Not hosts.”

On the soccer field, Morocco was the success story, beating Belgium and Canada before advancing to the round of 16, and Tuesday’s match against Spain. By the third match — against Canada — “Saudis, Tunisians, Palestinians, everyone was cheering for Morocco,” said Amine Eddaifi, 32, a Moroccan consultant who lives in the United Arab Emirates and had traveled back and forth to Qatar for the matches.

“We represent the Arab world, the last hope,” he said Tuesday, before the match against Spain. “It’s a great feeling. It’s also some pressure,” he said.

With a roaring World Cup moment, Morocco rolls to the quarterfinals

Afterward, outside the stadium, there were many claims to the victory. “Morocco! Africa!” several people chanted. “It’s the only Muslim country left. It feels blessed,” said Adib Laskar, a 27-year-old doctoral student who was studying in Qatar.

“The last of the underdogs,” said Hamsa Al-Massri, a Palestinian supporter of the team, as the crowd swelled around and marched on, preparing to celebrate elsewhere in the Arab capital.

Morocco's head coach Walid Regragui is thrown in the air as Morocco players celebrate after winning the penalty shootout against Spain, Tuesday in Doha. © Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post Morocco's head coach Walid Regragui is thrown in the air as Morocco players celebrate after winning the penalty shootout against Spain, Tuesday in Doha.
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