Arabs unite, dare to dream as Morocco reaches semifinals

DOHA: The T-shirt on sale at Doha’s main market declares “Our blood is Arab”, and that is the mood buoying Morocco as it became the first Arab and African nation to reach a World Cup semifinal after Youssef En-Nesyri’s first-half goal sealed a tense 1-0 victory over Portugal on Saturday at Al Thumama Stadium.

Cristiano Ronaldo has likely played his last World Cup match after making an ineffectual appearance as a second-half substitute, failing to score his first knockout-phase goal at the tournament. But Ronaldo, 37, who had started a second consecutive match on the bench, equaled the men’s international world record of 196 selections set by Kuwait international Bader Al-Mutawa.

Regional rivalries are being forgotten. Morocco’s red flag with a green star is becoming a best-seller seen across Doha ahead of their clash with Portugal. The flag – along with those of Qatar, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia – features on the “Our blood is Arab” T-shirt selling at Doha’s Souq Waqif market. Organizers of the first World Cup in the Middle East have long portrayed the tournament as a chance to build up Arab fervor.

Omar Babiker, an Algerian, is dreaming of Morocco reaching the last four even though his country has strained ties with its neighbor. After decades of mistrust over the disputed Western Sahara territory, Algeria severed diplomatic relations in 2021 over “hostile actions”. But Oran businessman Babiker, who is in Doha with his son, echoed the feelings of many Arabs when he told AFP: “Politics is for politicians. I am with Morocco. Morocco is like Algeria. I hope they go a long way.”

Morocco’s midfielder Sofiane Boufal celebrates with his mother after the win.

Morocco’s run has inspired similar joy across the Arab world. Many leaders have sent messages of congratulations to the team. Libyans set off fireworks in Tripoli despite their country’s conflict and economic crisis. In war-ravaged Syria, Mustafa Yassin, a dentist in the city of Idlib, honored a Facebook pledge to treat 20 people for free if Morocco reached the quarterfinals. Lebanon’s French-language L’Orient-Le Jour newspaper put the team on its front page, proclaiming: “Pride of the Arabs”.

Moroccan student Osama Al-Qabbani, 26, had been feeling far from home in Doha. But he said: “The huge number of Arabs who support Morocco makes me feel like I’m in Casablanca or Rabat.” Egyptian teenager Mohi Khaled wrapped himself in a Moroccan flag bought for 25 riyals ($6.80) as he joined the intense hunt for a ticket to Saturday’s game. “Morocco represents a beautiful Arab dream that makes us all happy,” he said.

Morocco’s players have been praised on social media for celebrating with the Palestinian flag, another feature of festivities in Souq Waqif’s cafes. Qatar, backing Palestinian claims to statehood, has refused to follow Gulf neighbors the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain by normalizing ties with the Zionist entity. In December 2020, Morocco also recognized the Zionist entity, though that hasn’t dented the pan-Arab sentiment supporting the team.

Arab pride did suffer at seeing hosts Qatar fall in the first round without a point from three games. Saudi Arabia beat Argentina, however, and Tunisia defeated France. Pan-Arab celebrations have been prominent during the tournament. Despite Saudi Arabia’s role in a Gulf blockade of Qatar from 2017 to 2021, Qatar’s Amir and Saudi’s Crown Prince draped themselves in each other’s colors at the tournament.

Many Qataris have adopted the Moroccan and Palestinian flags for the World Cup. Qatar fan Mohammed Fakhro, 52, said Morocco had “made up” for his team’s early exit. Former Moroccan international Talal al-Karkouri said the public support has played a decisive role in Morocco’s results. “The massive presence of the fans affected the opponent and pushed the players to get results,” he told AFP. Two Portuguese fans were faced with chants of “Dima (always) Morocco, Viva (Long live) Morocco” as they walked through waves of Moroccan red shirts at Souq Waqif. The quarterfinal would be like “playing Morocco on their home ground”, said Portuguese fan Fernando Lobo, 56. – AFP


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