Hope and optimism in Morocco ahead of World Cup last-16 match

Morocco are on the verge of making history as they take on former winners Spain in the last-16 match.

Morocco football fans
A sea of red - how the team's performance got the Moroccans dreaming again [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]

The perennial underachievers are finally soaring at a World Cup.

Morocco are on the verge of qualifying for a World Cup quarter-final, a feat that the team has never achieved in five previous World Cup appearances.

A draw against World Cup 2018 finalists Croatia was followed by a shock win over Belgium and a defeat of Canada in the group stages. Suddenly, Moroccans started believing, wishing for the dream to continue.

On Tuesday, the sun rose in Morocco, bringing hope and expectations.

Most cafés in Morocco now are draped in flags and banners. Some have set special menus and have not only added more TVs but also upgraded the existing ones to bigger and better screens, hoping to attract more patrons.

If fans want to watch the game at a café, they need to go at least two hours prior to kickoff, or reserve a table the night before. Without that, seats are difficult to find.

Cinemas will be screening the match instead of movies. Local musicians have been invited to cheer and sing the national anthem with fans.

Morocco World Cup fever
Morocco World Cup fever on the streets [Khadija Satou/Al Jazeera]

‘Best Arab team’ in the World Cup

Jordan team coach Adnan Hamad, who hails from Iraq, had labelled the Moroccan team as the “dark horse” of the tournament.

“That team is considered the best Arab team playing in the Qatar World Cup. It has 20 professional players from major European leagues. In the qualifiers, it passed with flying colours and has a major chance of progressing from the group,” he told Al Jazeera before the start of the contest.

“I believe that the Moroccan team has the best set of players, and the opportunity is in their hands to be the dark horse of the tournament.”

Qualifying for the World Cup was a huge deal for the country but after it did, all eyes were set on progressing from the group stages.

“I’m scared. Not because I don’t believe in the team. All we can do is support and cheer and have faith,” Moroccan supporter Kaoutar told Al Jazeera in Marrakesh. “Spain is a strong team and has achieved quite a lot. But let’s stay optimistic and hope for the best.”

Another fan, Mohammed, meanwhile, is more optimistic: “I strongly believe that we will crash Spain. We have a strong team that can take Spain and any other team down and stay in the World Cup. Even if we lose, I will still go out and celebrate because as a Moroccan I’m proud of the team. We’re the only team left that represents Arabs and that’s quite amazing.”

Morocco World Cup fever
Jerseys, scarves and flags being sold in Morocco [Khadija Satou/Al Jazeera]

For some, including fan Mehdi, there is a bit of superstition involved.

“I will not cheer and talk about the team until Tuesday. If someone asks, I will say that we have no chance against Spain but deep down, I think we can make history. I used this tactic for all previous matches and look, we’re still in the World Cup,” he said.

National TV channels are airing daily football segments in the news bulletins to show the players throughout their workouts and preparations, live footage of them getting ready for the match, and interviews with team officials and family members.

The newspapers are writing about the new coach, how he succeeded in building the team and also lauding the players on how they have performed so far. World Cup fever, coupled with the team’s showing, has firmly gripped the nation.

On match day, there are flags everywhere, people are singing national songs on the streets and screaming midfielder Hakim Ziyech’s name. They also have a message for Moroccan supporters in Qatar: be as loud and cheerful as possible so the players feel like they’re playing in Casablanca.

And that request is being answered in the Gulf.

“This team is making the hearts of all Moroccans beat as one. The pride, excitement – and fear – this is something we’ve not seen since 1986,” Yasmina Bennani, a Moroccan supporter in Qatar, said. “To go past the first round was the first football joy for the young generation and it’s beautiful because what’s happening on the pitch is bringing together children of the Moroccan diaspora, born all over Europe.”

The fans in Qatar have been loud and vocal in their support for Morocco [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Joy for all Arab fans

For Boutaina Essadiki, the team’s performance has been a shining light not only for Moroccans but all Arab football fans.

“The win [over Spain] will be a victory for all Arab teams,” Essadiki said. “I’m so proud to be a Moroccan right now. And given the situation, even if I wasn’t a Moroccan I’d like to be one to join in and celebrate.”

Back in Essaouira, a port city in the western Moroccan region of Marrakesh-Safi on the Atlantic Ocean, a huge screen has been set up in a famous square called Place Moulay Hassan to telecast all the national team’s games.

A video shared after the win over Belgium showed fans and police officials dancing together.

Moroccans across the world, and some neutral fans, will be hoping the dancing continues.

“Most people didn’t have faith in us that we can beat Belgium and qualify. But look at us now, we’ve qualified for the last 16 and will hopefully win against Spain and continue the journey to the final,” Sami, a Moroccan supporter, said.

“We have every right to dream. We’re called the Atlas Lions for a reason.”

Source: Al Jazeera