Yassine Bounou. Achraf Hakimi. Hakim Ziyech. Azzedine Ounahi. Sofiane Boufal. These men, after their phenomenal performance at the FIFA World Cup held in Qatar, are now heroes—not just in the eyes of Moroccans everywhere, no—in the eyes of the entire Arab world and the African continent.
As members of the Moroccan football team that reached the World Cup semi-final, they are the first African team to have done so since the quadrennial tournament first began in 1928.
While this Cinderella story for the Moroccans reached a respectable fourth-place conclusion on 18 December 2022 after a 2-1 defeat to Croatia, it was still a story that captured the hearts and minds of the millions of Atlas Lions supporters across a large swath of economic and social classes, infusing a Moroccan society with an unprecedented level of joy that would allow many to take their minds away from the troubles of daily life.
This tournament run served as a key factor in the shattering of a glass ceiling that once remained ever-present above the heads of African teams for many years, relegating them to the role of the token exotic supporting character for the otherwise World Cup mainstays like France, Brazil, Mexico, Spain, or Argentina.
With that in mind, we sat down with Mohamed Tozy, researcher and professor at Sciences Po Aix, to help us break down everything that happened in this edition of the World Cup.
Jeune Afrique: During this World Cup, the Atlas Lions reached the semi-final, a first for both Africa and the Arab world. To what would you attribute this miracle of sorts?
Mohammed Tozy: Firstly, I do not believe we should consider it a miracle. What we all witnessed was not a miracle but an event—an exceptional event wherein the actors involved—the players, management staff, and the fans—expected to achieve some form of success in this tournament. To that, I would say that this expectation of success was largely met, and in a good way.
Let us be clear about this—there is a very real political will behind this movement, a will over a decade in the making wherein Morocco took it upon itself to plan out the development of not just sports facilities, but local pitches throughout the country where technicians and aspiring footballers could train and develop their skills. This is a movement that saw fit to restructure and professionalise the very essence of football for those seeking to master their craft.
There has been a very real effort, on the part of the women’s game, to develop in a very big way as well. With a conservative and patriarchal culture still existing as a wall of sorts in Morocco, the development of the women’s game represents a small yet very necessary fissure.
This all began with a vision for football that established it as a means to integrate young people while providing a new source for both economic and political wealth in Africa—a major aspect of their policy.
In the last four years, many African national teams came to Morocco to hone their skills and prepare for World Cup Qualification. As a matter of fact, World Cup Qualifiers themselves took place in Morocco this past cycle. This took work, but everything was done to make this a reality.
By no means was this an easy undertaking, but thanks to the leadership of Fouzi Lekjaâ, Minister Delegate to the Minister of Finance and the head of the Royal Moroccan Football Federation, Moroccan football was able to properly mobilize the proper management of the funds needed to build a solid football side. His keen political sense contributed to the administrative competence of the Federation, allowing for the program to develop into what you see today.
Today, we are all witnesses to the arrival of a new generation of football leadership within the kingdom, transforming a long-neglected, mismanaged, and poorly attended environment into one that has earned its status as a legitimate public policy focus. Under this current government, sport has come under the supervision of the Ministry of National Education, Early Education and Athletics, which is a strong signal for the seriousness of the kingdom’s development ambitions.
Would you say that there is a correlation between Morocco’s recent political and economic advancements and the national team’s rise in overall quality?
To call it a correlation would be a bit much, in my view, but let’s say that this is but one of many dimensions to the kingdom’s recent advancements. Within the last decade, Morocco has undergone a considerable transformation, with heavy investments in infrastructure (such as ports, highways, airports, etc.), football fields, as well as the construction or renovation of large stadiums in cities like Agadir, Tangier, Casablanca, and Rabat, to name a few.
This renewed focus on infrastructure spending has been imperative to domestic development. There remain some insufficiencies in certain areas, but this policy shift has had an impact on the standard of living. It remains weak, but improved infrastructure has meant increased mobility of football supporters and a better structuring of the public, which is a key factor in how the players perform week in and week out.
Especially since the end of confinement, we have seen increased cooperation between the general public and domestic football clubs, resulting in the formation of fan clubs in Casblanca, Raja, Wydad, Fez, Agadir, Tangier, and so on. Economic activity has also since picked up, along with the growth in creativity around songs and poems around football.
Have we entered a Moroccan Football Golden Age of sorts?
Regardless, we have the ingredients to tell a beautiful football story in Morocco, one that will give rise to even greater ones in the future. It would have been nice to have had this when initially beginning this process, having experienced in these last few weeks a sequence of events that have since revealed a new mindset and values which lend itself to a path towards modernity, one accessible to all citizens, be they religious or not. This is the birth of a forward-looking political community.
What impact can Morocco’s showing at the World Cup have on Moroccans?
Beyond this exhilarating feeling that has come our way in the last few weeks, there has developed a considerably improved belief in this Moroccan side, as well an improved sense of self. Moroccans now perceive themselves differently, with increased faith in their abilities. I remember the impact that the Lions’ qualification for the 1986 World Cup had on an entire generation.
Legends like Timoumi, Khairy, Bouderbala, Dolmy, and Zaki were icons and indelible sources of inspiration. Now their performance—that was a miracle, whereas today the standard has risen. High performance play has become an expectation.
No question, the players that were managed by [national team manager] Regragui during this world cup will become heroes, and that their World Cup run will prove itself to be the source of many vocations beyond just football.
Do you believe these Morocco victories represented a David vs. Goliath dynamic?
There are a variety of different ways to look at it, as seen in the gap between Regragui-led Moroccan discourse, other actors in the Arab world, Muslim world, and the rest of Africa. This is a story that can be viewed differently depending on where you are or how you identify.
Through an Egyptian lens, there is a more lyrical way to both live and tell this story, with pan-Arabist themes. Others may also view it as a revenge on the north from the south.
You see, these aspects are almost absent from the modern indigenous narrative. While there are historical, symbolic, and religious ingredients, it is one open to the world, with a positive energy expressed by Regragui’s niyyah concept. Removing it from its traditional surroundings, this constitutes a formidable mobilization around the notions of work, effort, consistency, perseverance, ambition, and so on.
How do you feel Morocco’s performance in this year’s World Cup edition will impact the kingdom’s international image?
This year’s World Cup was a great public relations opportunity for Morocco. When have we ever talked about Morocco to this extent on the world stage? Never have we seen the kingdom’s flag (nor heard the kingdom’s national anthem sung) this frequently.
Regragui and the Atlas Lions have made many a front page on publications around the world, from Argentina, to the United States, through Turkey, Côte d’Ivoire, or the United Kingdom.
There are people today who once hardly knew where to locate Morocco on a map that are now under the team’s spell of success, overcome by an extremely positive energy and sense of solidarity. Along with the country, our players demonstrated diversity and united around a common ambition that was more than just a footballer’s dream.
How would you evaluate the images of King Mohammed VI, wearing a national team kit, celebrating in the streets of Rabat, after the Atlas Lions’ victory over Spain?
I found myself both surprised and greatly moved by this—surprised because there was, unlike Saudi Arabia which declared a public holiday after their team’s victory over Argentina, great modesty and discretion from His Majesty throughout the tournament. This recent event in the streets has been the only public expression of emotion that he allowed, complete with a reduced security detail as a result of its spontaneity.
Again, I must say I found myself moved by this because it demonstrated his humanity as an almost ordinary citizen, someone who reacts as anyone else would to the successes and efforts of the national football team.
Obviously, this can easily be interpreted as a masterful public relations stunt to emphasise the reality of communion and national unity, but this has been His Majesty’s style since his reign began—to present himself as that of an approachable monarch of the people, simple and humble in his ways. This is truly moving to me.
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