The narrative of Wednesday’s semi-final between Morocco and France is shaping up to be one of the most influential world cup History: The first African and Arab nation to reach the semi-finals will face its former European colonizers in a classic loser-versus-champion showdown with a clear geopolitical advantage.
For many African football fans, the story became more dramatic after the Atlas Lions’ astonishing journey to the semi-finals, beating three of Europe’s traditional colonial powers – Belgium, Spain and Portugal.
But while Morocco’s historic achievement has unleashed a wave of excitement and support across Africa, it has also generated some ambivalent emotions. Many Africans have mixed feelings about the North African side – largely because of Morocco’s own history.
“I refuse to celebrate,” Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, a prominent South African opposition MP, tweeted after Morocco’s shock quarter-final defeat to Portugal.
“Africa must reject Morocco until they end their occupation of Western Sahara,” he said, adding the hashtag #FreeWesternSahara for emphasis.
Ndlozi was referring to one of Africa’s thorniest issues: Morocco’s long-term occupation of the disputed territory of Western Sahara, whose struggle for independence is backed by the African Union and many African governments. Many Africans consider the territory to be the last colony on the continent.
The dispute over Western Sahara – known to its supporters as the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic – has weakened Morocco’s political and diplomatic ties with the continent for decades. In 1984, the Moroccan government withdrew from the Organization of African Unity, the first pan-African union after independence, due to the Western Sahara issue. For the next 33 years, it refused to join the OAU or its successor, the African Union, until finally backing down in 2017.
Less than two months ago, in an example of Africa’s support for Western Sahara’s independence, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa welcomed the territory’s president, Brahim Ghali, to Pretoria Make a state visit. South Africa also hosted a “solidarity conference” for the territory in 2019, with Ramaphosa’s government touting its “strong historical ties going back to the days of the struggle against colonialism and apartheid”.
Morocco’s football team has been eager to gain African identity despite a long-running territorial dispute. “We are here to represent Africa,” coach Walidre Graj said in a television interview earlier in the game. “We want to hold high the flag of Africa, just like Senegal, Ghana, Cameroon.”
The team’s Arab identity was also on display vividly, with its players regularly waving Palestinian flags after victories. It also endears them to many Africans who support Palestinian rights, one of the continent’s most popular political causes.
Unsurprisingly, there were widespread celebrations in many African countries over the weekend as Morocco beat the highly-favoured Portugal 1-0.
On social media, however, the divide was even more stark, with heated debate over the significance of Morocco’s win.
Some Africans expressed delight that the Atlas Lions had advanced to the semi-finals. “This is proof that Africa is on the rise and we are a force to be reckoned with,” former Somalia president Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed tweeted.
“For me it’s a celebration because Morocco wiped out the colonizers,” tweeted one South African fan.
But others were less happy. Western Sahara activists said on Twitter that it was hard for them to rejoice over Morocco’s victory when their territory was still occupied. Others expressed concern about Morocco’s attitude towards the rest of Africa.
Borges Nhamirre, a Mozambican journalist and researcher at the South African Institute for Security Studies, published an article from an Arab online media platform in 2019 titled “Why Moroccans Deny Being African ?”, in response to the World Cup incident.
Article describes “anti-African sentiment” in Morocco, especially on immigration. A bus company reportedly posted a notice requiring any “African” traveling to a Moroccan border city to undergo a special check of their identity documents.
The article stated that some Moroccans “have forgotten or willfully forgot that they belong geographically to the African continent”.