“For this I have fought […] Before this World Cup, we had a lot of problems about the guys born in Europe and guys not born in Morocco [...] Today, we have shown that every Moroccan is Moroccan.” - Walid Regragui, Head Coach of the Moroccan National Team
Morocco’s football team have made history in Qatar this month by becoming the first African, and the first Arab team, ever to reach the World Cup semi-finals. This is a monumental achievement that calls for celebration but also reflection.
Morocco making the semi-finals represents a major turning point for African football, inspiring future generations to dare to dream. But the Moroccan squad also stands out from the 32 national teams in this 2022 World Cup, as it has the highest number of foreign-born players (14 out of a squad of 26), including members of the Moroccan diaspora from Spain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Canada. The diversity of the players' backgrounds could have complicated the team's dynamics, but instead has proven to be one of its greatest strengths. Their coach, Walid Regragui, a second-generation French-Moroccan who began his coaching career in Morocco over a decade ago, has created a strong team spirit between players of different backgrounds. Footballers choosing to play for the country of their heritage, rather than their birth, raises a multitude of questions about integration, diaspora engagement and national identity.
Reversing the trend and tapping into the diaspora
Historically, African players were often called up to play in the World Cup for their colonisers before their countries’ gained independence, since FIFA did not recognise their homelands. Today, the trend has reversed —former colonies are increasingly reaching out to their diasporas to recruit players for African national teams. The existence of powerful ethnic and familial ties makes tapping into diasporic talent a pragmatic choice.
In this year’s World Cup, outside of the French team, there are another 38 France-born players. All except four are representing African countries, including 10 for Tunisia, nine for Senegal, and eight for Cameroon.
The Moroccan team is no exception to this more recent trend. While, in the past, it only had three foreign-born players for the four World Cups for which it qualified between 1970 and 1998, more recently it has tapped into its diaspora, which represents over 10 per cent of the total Moroccan population, to build its national team. The diaspora’s strong attachment to Morocco is partly the result of decades of engagement policies.
Many current Moroccan football stars are the product of a recruitment campaign that gained traction in 2014. In an interview this month, coach Regragui declared, “For this I have fought […] Before this World Cup, we had a lot of problems about the guys born in Europe and guys not born in Morocco and a lot of journalists said, ‘Why don’t we play with guys born in Morocco?’ Today, we have shown that every Moroccan is Moroccan.”
A footballer’s choice – following their hearts?
Several players, often joined by their parents, have made it clear in media interviews that questions of identity have influenced their decision to represent the Moroccan national team. Dutch-born striker, Hakim Zyech, said that he was asked to choose with his heart and his heart chose Morocco.
Midfielder Sofyan Amrabat, who represented the Netherlands at a junior level like Ziyech, declined to represent his birth country and joined Morocco’s World Cup squad. He comments, “My parents are Moroccan and my grandparents are Moroccan. Every time I go there, I can't describe the feeling inside me in words: it's my home. The Netherlands is also my home, but Morocco is special.”
Some players have pointed out the social exclusion and marginalisation that they have experienced in the countries of their birth. "If you make any small mistake here, knowing that you are of Moroccan origin, you are the victim of exaggerated criticism, unlike the ethnic Dutch who have a greater margin of error and benefit from much indulgence," Hakim Ziyech said in an interview with a Dutch magazine. Similarly, Achraf Hakimi, who was born in Spain and trained at Real Madrid, decided to join the Moroccan squad as he felt more “at home” within the team. He explained in an interview how he also tried out for the Spanish national team with De La Fuente. “I spent a few days in Las Rozas and I saw that it was not the right place for me. I did not feel at home.” In another interview, he explained: “with Morocco, I have more importance in the game […] They give me a lot of confidence and I try to give it back.”
“[Ziyech] plays with a different energy when he plays for his country. I watch him at Chelsea and I’m not being negative but the difference is this man needs it when he’s playing for Morocco” said Ian Wright, football pundit and former Arsenal and England player. Ziyech has surprised Chelsea fans and British media commentators with his World Cup performances.
Championed by champions
African football taps into its diaspora for players and coaches alike. For the first time in history, all five African teams that qualified for the last 32 of the 2022 World Cup are headed by African coaches – four of whom have established careers in top-tier European football. Walid Regragui, who was appointed Morocco’s coach only three months before the start of the World Cup in Qatar, acknowledges the opportunity that was given to him by his homeland. “I graduated in France, but it was my country of origin that gave me my chance… [my] confidence to be able to grow in Morocco as a coach.”
Since the first World Cup in 1930, research from the Migration Policy Institute has shown that the number of footballers playing for a country other than the country of their birth remains relatively stable – between 2% and 14%. However, it is likely that the competition for football talent from the diaspora will increase. Choices made by footballers will inevitably be based on personal factors, but experiences of integration in their countries of birth and the strength of ties to their motherlands also prove significant.
The historic achievement of the Moroccan team during the 2022 World Cup marks a new chapter in African and Arab football. It shows that when both domestic and diaspora players and coaches are trusted, valued and are given a chance, anything is possible.