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Only a Game

By Fred A. Reed

No, it isn’t. The 2022 World Cup held in Qatar should have put that idea to rest.

Seen objectively (default mode for former journalists) the World Cup features boy-men in short pants chasing a ball. Just like ice hockey features boy-men in padded costumes and wearing skates chasing a puck around an icy rink.

Both activities, ostensibly sports, generate powerful emotions, promote solidarities of curious kinds, a sense of common cause and even of belonging. For an instant, the spectator becomes part of something greater—far greater—than him or herself.

But where hockey is parochial and provincial, and strictly weather-bound, football—the real football, that is, the sport played by the elementary act of kicking a ball and ultimately causing it to enter a goal—is not merely a popular sport. It is a universal activity that transcends boundaries and ceaselessly generates complex subtexts, ranging from the economic to the geopolitical, including national and religious symbolism.

Morocco’s participation, and its fourth-place finish in the World Cup, encapsulated this complexity, and then some! Morocco, we who live here quickly realized, was not simply a team. It was the expression of an idea of nationhood, of supra-national ambitions, of fragmented identities and religious affirmation wrapped in the glossy cellophane of aspirations that the players themselves may not even have understood—or understood very well.

Before the tournament began, it became clear Morocco was invested with a symbolic mission. The model would be the eighth-century conquest of the Iberian Peninsula and the creation of Andalusia by Tarik ibn-Zayid, he who crossed the straits of Gibraltar and after whom the Rock is named. Leaping over several centuries, the team would put right the nation’s humiliation at the hands of European imperial powers Spain, Portugal and worst of all, France.

Then, too there are the broader cultural implications of this year’s football fest. Did not the host ‘country’ Qatar ignore intense pressure over its mistreatment of foreign workers from Europa, once the center of the universe? Did not the Persian Gulf sheikdom engage in such great and glorious Western practices as bribery and corruption? Did it not ban and restrict woke-freedom speech and look on, delighted, as its purveyors went down to humiliating defeat (i.e., once mighty Germany, upstart Iran, and legendary football nations like Spain and Portugal, both eliminated by former colony Morocco)?)

Yes it did, as Barack Obama might have put it.

True enough, the final—in strictly football terms, a match of rare and extraordinary intensity—brought together a former (?) imperialist power that, as a Moroccan friend remarked, was really an imported African team, versus a South American side criticized by some American academics as ‘lacking in diversity” for want of black players and likened, by others, to apprentice mafia hit-men.

But the real story of the 2022 World Cup, as any sportswriter would surely agree, was the emergence of Morocco. A country without a glorious football tradition: no Diego Maradona, no Cristiano Ronaldo, and no Lionel Messi to boast of. Just a bunch of random guys who grew up playing football on dirt pitches wearing shorts, torn T-shirts and probably barefoot. The kind of impromptu fields one sees on the outskirts of every village from here to Iran and beyond.

Just what or who was the Moroccan team? Our adopted country likes to advertise itself as African, in line with its aspirations to powerhouse status among the poor countries to the south. But wasn’t Morocco an Arab country?

Well, that too. Upon independence from France, Morocco enshrined Arabic as the new state’s official language. But in Qatar, when a member of the national team was interviewed in Arabic by a local TV station, he pleaded: “English please.” Several of said team’s top players are from modest backgrounds, and perhaps two thirds of them were not even born in Morocco but in the European diaspora.

So what did they speak, first among themselves, then to the thousands of fans that made their way to Qatar, and to the waiting nation? Darija, of course, the sub-dialect that is to classical Arabic as Haitian Créole is to French: the real national language, spoken and understood by almost everyone from King Mohamed VI on down.

But ‘Arab’ was also the adjective that identified the Moroccan squad as Muslim, which it most certainly was. Videos quickly emerged of mass prayers for the team's victory held in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country. Closer to home, a short video of young men reciting the Qur’an while Morocco was defeating Portugal came in for criticism as being ‘too much’, to which some responded: “They won, didn’t they.”

Things got trickier when one of the Moroccan players, then the whole team, displayed the Palestinian flag during post-game celebrations. To avoid offending local sensibilities, Qatar had banned the multi-colored trans-gender flag and related symbolism like armbands and hats. Once-mighty Germany took a principled stand, posing for a pre-game team photo hands over mouths in protest. Better they should have concentrated on the task at hand, and were soon eliminated by football pipsqueak Japan.

But in contradiction to exquisite Western gender sensibilities, Palestine proved dear to the heart of Arab and Muslim masses, from Morocco to Indonesia. Far too dear for Qatari brass, looking over their shoulders at the immense American air base just up the coast, to intervene, despite representations from the usual suspects.

What can be said openly in Morocco is subject to certain restrictions: a hugely popular cause like that of Palestine must be broached cautiously lest it be taken as a sign of displeasure at “normalization.”

As we recall, in one of its final acts, the Trump administration prevailed upon its vassals, uh, er, allies, to sign the Abrahamic Accords, brainchild of Mr. Jared Kushner. Enticed by American endorsement of its de facto possession of the former Spanish Sahara—quelques arpents de sable—Morocco agreed to normalize relations with Israel. Ergo, the display of the Palestinian flag by the Moroccan team was seen as disavowal of state policy and as casting umbrage upon the King, whose person, as hereditary monarch and Commander of the Faithful, stands far above criticism.

But so wildly popular were the Lions of the Atlas—so powerful were they as an emblem of national unity and pride—that nothing could be done. Predictably, the pro-Israel lobby fulminated; a German mass-circulation weekly attempted to portray the Moroccan players as ISIS sympathizers. For naught. The indomitable Lions were untouchable.

Their exalted status was reaffirmed when they returned, victorious, to a hero’s welcome in the capital, Rabat. Immense and noisy crowds thronged the streets, and the players, and their mothers, were received by the King himself, who bantered with them like one of the guys. Most certainly in Darija. Not a Palestinian flag to be seen.

Once again “we” were an African nation, an Arab nation, a Muslim nation, and even a Berber nation, and happy and comfortable with that.

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I knew you would manage to captivate me into a read about futbal...


EarlM Fowler
EarlM Fowler
Dec 26, 2022


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