BRUSSELS ( Associated Press) – After warming up to the first customers with hot drinks at Cafe Tetouan in central Brussels, owner Hicham Acharya buys Moroccan flags from a street vendor in preparation for Saturday’s game against Portugal at the World Cup. Morocco are excited to be the first African country to reach the semi-finals.
As Acharya is expected to be packed since the start of the World Cup.
“They are writing a page of history,” Acharya said of the team that has brought a sense of pride to Moroccan immigrant communities across Europe.
An estimated five million Moroccans live outside their country, most in European countries such as France, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy. The national team relies heavily on that diaspora as 14 of the 26 players were born in another country, the largest proportion of any team at the World Cup.
“He was born abroad, but he has Moroccan blood in him,” Acharya said, referring specifically to midfielder Hakim Ziyech, who is from the Netherlands. “What did you say when you chose Morocco? He said that this is a call from the heart.
Ziyech, who plays for Premier League side Chelsea, has shone in Qatar, forming a lethal pairing down the right flank with Spanish-born Paris Saint-Germain full-back, Achraf Hakimi. In addition, four Moroccan players were born in Belgium.
Coach Walid Regragui, who was born in France, compared building his roster to building a “milkshake”, consisting of players of Moroccan descent from across Europe, giving the team a variety of cultures and playing styles from those countries. Used to bring where they were born.
“The people are identifying with us and we are finding a way to unite Moroccans,” Regaragui said on Friday. “It is worth more than anything, it is worth more than money and titles.”
Despite this, he is not willing to let the excitement surrounding the team affect his concentration.
“If we can give people hope and positive energy, that’s great. But our focus is on what we are going to do on the pitch.”
Hassan Boussetta, a scholar of Moroccan migration, said that the backgrounds of all players born abroad are reflective of the immigrant distribution of communities around Europe.
“Unlike Turks and Algerians, for example, Moroccans are more dispersed in other countries in Europe,” Bussetta said.
He emphasized the role that the Moroccan authorities play in maintaining close ties with those leaving the country.
“He has built a global connection with his diaspora. And today we see that effect in football,” he said. “All these players are trained by big clubs. The idea is to benefit from it on a global scale. It’s not like giving so much responsibility to a few kids in that diaspora which you see a lot in other Arab countries.”
In Qatar, players of European descent have been instrumental in appeasing a large base living outside that country.
After Morocco defeated Spain on penalties in the round of 16, crowds of fans took to the streets of various European cities to celebrate. Some fans in Madrid have mixed feelings.
“If Spain had won, we would have been just as happy because we live here, it’s our country too,” said 19-year-old student Shalma Boudoir. “We have Spanish nationality, but Morocco has never won the World Cup, so we couldn’t be happier.”
To underline a sense of double belonging, Belgian flags also adorn the walls of Café Tetouan, where Moroccan immigrants and their descendants have come together to support the Atlas Lions in their historic World Cup run.
After Morocco’s exit from the World Cup in the group stage four years ago, their fans supported Belgium in everything. The Red Devils reached the semi-finals with the help of two players of Moroccan origin, Marouane Fellaini and Nasser Chadli.
“We have been ardent admirers of Belgium because we also consider it our country,” said Adil El Malki, 49, a legal expert of dual nationality. “But to be honest, it is more a sense of belonging and identity that prevails. That’s why we support Morocco, although Belgium is also in our hearts.”
Despite dual loyalties, the Belgian and Dutch cities were rocked by riots when Morocco beat Belgium 2–0 in the group stage. But overall, the Moroccan victory was celebrated peacefully by fans of Moroccan origin.
“Hopefully everything will be calm and peaceful on Saturday and there will be no riots,” Acharya said. “And long live the Moroccans.”