Arab and African fans take to the streets in their respective countries to celebrate the Atlas Lions' victories in Qatar

La hazaña mundialista de Marruecos desata la ilusión en África y el mundo árabe

AFP/JULIEN DE ROSA - A Morocco supporter waves a national flag near the Arc de Triomphe, to celebrate the victory of the national team after the Qatar 2022 World Cup football match between Morocco and Spain, on the Champs Elysees in Paris on December 6, 2022

Morocco is the revelation of the World Cup in Qatar. No one doubts at this stage the level of Walid Regragui's boys, who managed to knock out Spain in the round of 16 after an agonising penalty shootout in which Yassine Bounou was the hero, and in the quarter-finals against Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal, this time in a matter of 90 minutes and in the Portuguese star's last World Cup appearance. The Atlas Lions are just one step away from the final, but the team to beat in the semi-finals is France, the reigning champions, who are favourites to lift what would be their third World Cup. Glory is still a long way off.

Whatever happens on Wednesday at 20.00 CET, when the ball is kicked off at the Al Bayt stadium in Qatar, Morocco will have made history. The footballing feat is unprecedented in African football, as no team on the continent has ever come this far before. Morocco have become the first African team to make it into the top four teams at a World Cup. Three teams - Cameroon in 1990, Ghana in 2010 and Senegal in 2002 - failed to make the cut. The Moroccan team of the 'Bono', Achraf Hakimi, Amrabat, Ounahi or Ziyech will serve as an inspiration for the next generations of footballers and fans.

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It is much more than football. What happens on the pitch transcends the purely sporting to become a cultural phenomenon, with profound social and political ramifications that are not long in coming. Morocco's victories over Belgium (0-2) in the group stage, Spain (0-0, 3-0) and Portugal (1-0), which galvanised fans in Africa and the Arab world, are a good illustration of this. The Moroccan national team's achievements are partly perceived as their own, mainly because they see the players who wear the jersey of the Atlas Lions as similar, as equals.

Thousands of people marched through the streets of Nairobi, Cairo, Riyadh and Sana'a to celebrate Morocco's progress to the semi-finals. Even in Algiers, fans erupted in jubilation after Youssef En-Nesyri's header ended in a goal against Portugal, despite the official media's silence on Morocco's triumph and the government's decision to break off diplomatic relations with its neighbour in July 2021. None of that matters when the Moroccan players take the field, on their backs they carry a whole region united by their football.

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Of all the corners of the world where the Moroccan team's victories have been celebrated, the visible joy in the Palestinian cities of the West Bank is striking. An avalanche of Moroccan flags has poured onto the streets of Nablus, Hebron and Ramallah. The furore with the Atlas Lions has an easy answer: at the end of the match against Spain, the Moroccan footballers brought out the Palestinian flag during the celebration on the pitch. It was not the first time they had made such a gesture in favour of the Palestinian cause during the World Cup.

Morocco's progress in the competition was the focus of the expectations of the Arab world and football fans in the Middle East, especially after the premature elimination of other Arab teams such as the hosts, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia. Al-Ahram, Egypt's leading daily newspaper, wrote on its front page: "The Atlas Lions are the joy of the Arab world". The fall of the African teams, Senegal, Cameroon and Ghana, did the same for the rest of the African continent. Ugandan singer and opposition leader to autocrat Yoweri Museveni, Bobi Wine, tweeted a picture of himself wearing a Morocco shirt with the following message: "Africa united after Morocco, the last man standing".

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Football teams are, for some fans, the extension of nations. The ball often finds its way into the realm of politics. Analogies are commonplace. That is why victories over Belgium, Spain and Portugal have had such connotations, because these countries have been former colonising powers in Africa. Now Morocco is striking back. It is the same prism through which a section of Arab and African fans view the semi-final against France, a match that is much more than football.

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