Walid Regragui’s brilliant Morocco unites Arabs and Africans 

The Atlas Lions of Morocco have become one of the stories of this World Cup. But for the Arab world they are now the only story.
Walid Regragui’s brilliant Morocco unites Arabs and Africans 

SOLE FOCUS: Morocco scarves hang on the streets of Qatar. 

Morocco are the home team here now.

Hard as they may try to condition all of the air in this city, the Persian Gulf sun tries harder, particularly at its midday peak. Even in December, there’s a rush to find an escape from the noon onslaught.

The Souk Wakif, part ancient market, part modern creation Disney-dated for the tourist masses, offers plenty of respite. Its mazy, byzantine alleyways provide day-round shade and distraction too. In the lanes of the perfume district the cool air hangs with an overpowering fruity sweetness of jasmine and leathery smoky oud. The sellers rub some on your arm, whether you want it or not and so you spend the rest of the day with it wafting up to your nose every so often. The spice traders offer their own respite, clearing the nostrils and filling them again with saffron and sumac, turmeric and cardamom rushing in.

Trade was on the slower side of steady as Monday lunchtime approached. Until you reached the garment stalls near the edges of the market. Here things were hectic and the hottest seller was deep ruby red.

Anyone and everyone wants a Morocco jersey now and the market, like most these days, is inflationary. This doesn’t please the buyers. A Tunisian who now calls Doha home haggles from the starting price of 150 Qatari Rial (about €40) down to QR100 but does the walk-away, hoping for a further discount. 

Have they been selling well, we wondered? “Too much, it’s too much,” the stall owner says. “I will not have enough.” 

TAKE YOUR PICK: Jerseys of the remaining nations for sale. 
TAKE YOUR PICK: Jerseys of the remaining nations for sale. 

As they roared to the top of Group F and into the last 16, the Atlas Lions of Morocco have become one of the stories of this World Cup. But for the Arab world they are now the only story. The first tournament to be played in these parts has one Arabic team still standing and their compatriots are determined to stand alongside them — with the colours to match.

Walid Regragui only took the Moroccan reins three months ago but he’s probably the leading candidate for coach of the tournament. The 47-year-old has found a way to unite a team of many tongues. Morocco relied on their diaspora more than any other team here — with 14 of their 26 players born overseas in France, Spain, Belgium and Holland — so in one sense it feels right that Regragui’s brilliant side are now bringing not just Arabs but Africans together too.

“We want to hoist our Moroccan flag way up high,” Regragui said Monday as he plotted a path past Spain in Tuesday’s last 16 showdown. “First and foremost for us and our country and yes, for all Arabs and Africans. We want to make them happy. We want their prayers and we want their support.” 

They have plenty of both. Abu Ayoub, with a red fez hat logo above its lettering, is a Syrian restaurant tucked into the northern tip of the Souk and is a people-watching paradise. The hummus Beiruty comes with oven-fresh blistered and bloated flatbread and is garlicky, citrusy comfort in a bowl. Safiha lamb is soaked in a thick pomegranate molasses that coats the roof of your mouth and you have no choice but to do the german-shepherd-eating-peanut-butter thing and roll your tongue til it’s physically gone but the tangy sweetness goes nowhere.

Mustafa, the waiter, asks if the food is good but the look on our face tells the story. He’s from Morocco. “Marrakech is my city,” he says with that pride of someone who is no longer in their city. His colleagues in crisp white shirts with the little red fez on the chest are a mix of Syrian and Lebanese…usually. 

SUPPORT: A Senegal fan (L) and a Morocco fan (R) look on ahead of the Qatar 2022 World Cup round of 16 football match between England and Senegal. Pic: JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images
SUPPORT: A Senegal fan (L) and a Morocco fan (R) look on ahead of the Qatar 2022 World Cup round of 16 football match between England and Senegal. Pic: JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images

“Everyone is Morocco now,” Mustafa says. “I hope that after tomorrow they will still want to be Moroccan. I feel good…Spain will be beaten, 1-0, Inshallah.” 

If 1-0 sounds bullish then you haven’t been watching enough Morocco. A defiant defence with PSG’s Achraf Hakimi and Romain Saïss heroic performers, kept clean sheets against both Croatia and Belgium, an unfortunate own goal against Canada the only time keeper Bono has conceded. At the other end, Hakim Ziyech, who only returned when Regragui took over, has been stellar in front of Hakimi. Sevilla’s Youssef En-Nesyri is a physical handful who will torment Spain’s defence.

This is a bandwagon. But it’s a bandwagon that threatens to go places. The scheduling of last 16 ties means that Morocco are the Arab world’s last hope and Africa’s too. A couple of tables over, a quartet from South Africa are one of many tables bubbling and blowing from shisha pipes. Tanny, the most talkative of the four and arguably of the thousands milling around the market, says “we’re here for Messi. Everyone is. But now we have to support our African brothers too. Look around, it’s Morocco everywhere.” 

HIGH HOPES: A Moroccan fan is interviewed. 
HIGH HOPES: A Moroccan fan is interviewed. 

Opposite him, Yaya (“exactly like Toure” he helps) wonders “why is it that this doesn’t happen in Europe? Too much rivalries for old reasons.” Solidarity is in no short supply. The only colours or flag you see more frequently than Morocco’s is that of Palestine. Qatari residents and Arab visitors here are determined that the country’s plight amid its occupation by Israel shall be visible throughout the World Cup. When captain Saïss and the rest of the players celebrated topping Group F, they flew a Palestinian flag as well as their own.

All of this is doing wonders for Moroccan morale, for the team’s sense of destiny. Yet there’s a downside.

“Arabs now are all behind Morocco and this is a good thing but has one problem,” Youssef Chahdi, from Fes but now living in Marrakech, says as he wanders out of the Souk. "We Moroccans cannot find tickets, can’t buy them at any price. In the stadium I think it would be better if Moroccans are the ones in there. The players say always, they are playing for the people of Morocco. We know them and know what to say.” 

Chahdi, clad in the genuine version of the Puma kit, has been here since the start and will stay as long as Morocco do. Regragui’s determined that that means another few days yet.

“To be the last African country? We have nothing to lose,” insisted the manager as he again jumped from multiple Arabic dialects to French to English. “We will come out swinging. We will hoist our Moroccan flag. Before it was only Moroccans supporting us…now we will add the African and Arab support and prayers. And we will fight with a warrior attitude."

With a swelling deep red army behind them.

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