(Written on Saturday night, December 10, 2022)
In the rarified upper atmosphere of professional international football, Morocco’s successful march to the 2022 World Cup semi-finals is a welcome break from the usual script. What is even more remarkable about this feat is how the team got there. The Moroccans drew with Croatia and beat Canada and Belgium in the group stage matches to finish on top of their group, and then dispatched both Spain and Portugal in the round of 16 and the quarterfinal games respectively. They knocked out the entire Iberian Peninsula’s pride of football in less than a week, and that menu was loaded with superstars. That’s no easy slate to erase from the blackboard. The Moroccan footballers accomplished this by playing fearless defense (they have conceded one goal so far in five matches and that was an own goal), by not being cowed by the power houses and the big shots, and by performing as a team, not as a collection of multi-millionaires who largely play for their own individual success ratings. We should take a moment to recognize this. But there are other things going on as well.
Here’s one. Morocco’s success resonates with people who righteously feel short changed. In this country, Arabs, Muslims and immigrants from the Middle East (exempt Israelis) are generally viewed as suspect (see post 9/11 especially). Africans from the continent are considered to be non-contenders (see forever). Morocco’s success helps blow up this mythology, no matter how superficial winning a football game might appear to be. And in the big wide world, this is huge. Morocco competes, equals and beats the very powers that deem them to be inferior. Look, Morocco might be ruled by a lousy regime, with a putrid track record. That matters, but it doesn’t seem to enter into the equation of underdog versus favorite and this is the popular global interpretation…root for the underdog. This time the underdog is Arab and from Africa. Most Moroccans are of Berber origin.
Let me carry on for a bit more. The international shoeless, those that have next to nothing, who maybe have been bombed, starved, made to flee as refugees, who receive no welcome but scorn, and are forced to live in constant danger recognize this inequality. That’s hardly an insignificant percentage of the world’s population. They follow the World Cup too. The Palestinian struggle has received a much-needed boost in visible ways (see the photo below). In New York City, the streets of Astoria, Queens (a neighborhood with a sizeable North African population, documented or not) were chock a block with folks celebrating the Morocco victory over Portugal. I don’t know whether these people vote or are even allowed to vote. It doesn’t matter, they have the right to enjoy that moment because they probably don’t have too many joyous occasions. I sincerely doubt that this same crowd would come out like this for an elected official. The same is true from Marrakesh to Mombasa, from Durban to Delhi, from Cairo to Karachi (in both directions). It’s everybody’s world, despite what the current owners and those that are too comfortable to give a shit say and do.
The Moroccan team with an unfurled Palestinian flag after their victory over Spain.
Who are these Moroccan players? Many of them play for top European teams, yet they remain a mystery, particularly for Americans. Hakim Ziyech is a winger whose nickname is the Wizard. He is with Chelsea, a major English Premier League club. Achraf Hakimi is a defensive back fielder and he plays for Paris-Saint Germain, Neymar’s team. His mother cleaned people’s houses in Madrid and his father sold fruit on the streets there. Achraf Hakimi scored the winning penalty in the match against Spain. Youssef En-Nesyri, an attacking forward whose header earlier today destroyed Portugal’s hopes, is a member of Sevilla in the Spanish La Liga. Yassine Bounou (also called Bono) is the Moroccan goalie. It’s a pleasure to know another Bono (Bounou) who isn’t as insufferable as the Irish singer. That Bono irritates the pants off me. Remember the infamous Bono (U2) quote at a concert, “Every time I clap, a child dies of starvation.” The response from a savvy audience member was “Stop fucking clapping then.” So that’s Morocco. Bueno!
I’m trying to figure out how England managed to lose their match against France. They had tons of chances to put it away and still came up short. They seemed to me to be the better more adventurous team. I’m sure Harry Kane will eventually be forgiven for missing his penalty, maybe his knighthood might be temporarily delayed, but I am not so certain that Marcus Rashford will receive the same leniency for overshooting the free kick right at the end. Both Rashford and Bukayo Saka were vilified for missing their penalties in the loss to Italy last year in the Euros final at Wembley. Death threats were issued. Saka and Rashford are black English players, good ones too. What a miserable tradition.
It is not my intention to ignore the other side of the bracket. Croatia is a tough team made up of hard men. They beat Brazil last Friday. And they were finalists in the last World Cup go-around. Argentina is the favorite of many pundits to take the trophy. The winner of this contest next Tuesday (December 13th) will have to face either France or Morocco in the final.
Meanwhile, the US Fox television coverage of the tournament continues to be abominable. I felt somewhat vindicated on my initial comments about this (see Hard Crackers World Cup Chapter Two – The Saga Continues, November 27, 2022). Aaron Timms of the London Guardian wrote a scathing piece which echoed in far more detail my thoughts. He wrote “this World Cup tempts us with the fascination of Fox’s abomination.” And he concluded “Lalas is about to do his World Cup power rankings and nothing gets between me and my daily appointment with Lexi on the Doha disco tiles.” I agree. It’s akin to watching Bono and his gigantic ego at some concert/promo for his anticipated Nobel Peace Prize award, one just doesn’t want to miss how awful the whole megillah is. And the writer is talking about my favorite banana on the panel, Alexi Lalas. Half an hour before the Netherlands US match, Alexi Lalas boldly pronounced that the US would win that game 2-0. Half an hour after the Americans lost 3-1, he predicted that the US will win the next World Cup here in 2026. That’s four years away, but his sureness wasn’t in doubt. Lalas’s certainty was based on his notion that the US would be getting a lot better. What this doesn’t take into consideration is what about everybody else, do they improve too, stay the same, or just deteriorate (all of them at the same time). What a profound thinker Alexi Lalas is. Thank god we don’t have to (think that is).
On this coming Wednesday (December 14th), Morocco goes up against France in the other one of the semi-final matches. There is more than a little bit of non-football history here shared between these two countries. Hard Crackers will be back with further reportage and musings on this World Cup competition. Go Morocco, the Lions of the Atlas Mountains! Watch out for Alexi Lalas! We’re not dead yet.