Motivated diaspora unites to telling effect for Morocco in World Cup

Football-mad North African nation united behind the Atlas Lions after their impressive progress to a last 16 date with Spain

Achraf Hakimi ran off the Al Thumama grass, passing stewards and snappers, to climb into the stand where he was showered by a multitude of Moroccan kisses.

“Wleyyde!” cried Saida Mou, mother of the Paris Saint Germain star.

My little boy!

“Mmemte!” replied Hakimi, having just run Belgium ragged.


Dearest momma!

The story of the Atlas Lions is the story of immigrants returning home. Not to live, but long enough to gift status to the people they were forced to leave behind, or in many cases never got to meet, after being born to the exiled in Madrid, Paris, Montreal, the Netherlands and Belgium.

Saida Mou used to clean houses. Hakimi’s father Hasam was a street vendor. Today, the 24-year-old face of Moroccan football, the man who unleashed Youssef En-Nesyri for the second goal against Canada on Thursday night, is an Arab icon, married to Spanish actress Hiba Abouk.

The couple, who have two sons, were on last month’s Vogue Arabia cover.

“It’s like you play for your grandfather and their grandfathers,” Hakimi, who was born in Madrid, told Vogue. “You play for millions of Moroccans.”

“We are very conscious that we have a lot of eyes on us and that we represent something in the Arab world,” said Abouk, “so we try to do our best.”

Like most Moroccans, educated or not, Hakimi dances between European and Arabic dialects. His English is solid, his French improving. Real Madrid and the Spanish national squad somehow let him slip away.

That is what has changed. Moroccans play for Morocco now.

“I love you momma,” Hakimi instagrammed his 11 million follows, beneath a picture of the World Cup embrace by mother and son.

Coincidentally, this reporter spent the month of May on the beaches around Taghazout, a fishing village north of Agadir, where every evening at dusk, as the tide retreated, boys would leap off the boats to play ball. To a player, their first touch was crisp and true. We cannot comment on their second or third touches because they had no need for them.

Barefoot on hot sand, the skill level was enhanced whenever a tourist joined in, only to be humiliated by the tempo. This happened on every beach along the Atlantic, every day.

The feeling has long existed about Morocco; if the football federation ever got their administrative house in order, an African giant would wake from slumber, as talent up the western coast, curving into the Mediterranean and high up the Atlas mountains could be funnelled into academies like the central system built 13 years ago in Mamoura, Rabat, with its aim being to eventually reduce the reliance on second-generation talent.

Something has stirred to life under Morocco manager Walid Regragui’s guiding wand.

“The own goal shook us and the players began thinking of ‘The Curse’ that affected us in previous World Cups,” he said after the nervy 2-1 defeat of Canada “but look at Hakimi, all Moroccans should praise him, he was injured but he played.

“He is extraordinary.”

“We had to change our mindset,” the young French-born coach continued. “We had to do what European and South American teams do, to win like France and Argentina. They always come with a plan. We need to duplicate the rigorous European style with our own identity. If we do this we will win.”

Hakimi concurred: “I see teammates at PSG win the World Cup and I want to be like them.”

In the Marrakesh souks the same two shirts are visible on every other wheeler-dealer; Messi’s PSG number 30 and Hakimi’s blood red number two.

“Building a technical relationship with Messi is easy!” Hakimi told L’Equipe, “I give him the ball, I run and he will put it where it belongs! I was surprised by the way he behaved, he is simple, quiet.”

The names on Moroccan shirts, visible on the beaches and in the souks, has changed in the past few days. It is not just Hakim Ziyech’s number seven, as an eruption of football fever occurs in a country desperate to host the 2030 World Cup, following five unsuccessful bids in 1994, 2006, 2010 and 2026.

The success of the team in Qatar, ahead of Tuesday’s last 16 match with Spain, and the fear of a sixth failed bid has strengthened their resolve.

Tunisia and Algeria may need to be drafted in for a joint-North African bid to fend off Saudi Arabia’s collaboration with Egypt and Greece, with Uruguay spearheading the South American effort.

The 1998 Moroccan bid remains a painful defeat as France pipped them 12-7 via the old Fifa executive committee ballot. They still feel aggrieved about the 2010 tournament going to South Africa. Former ExCo member Chuck Blazer is on the record stating he was bribed in both processes to reject Morocco. For 2026, North America outlasted them by 134 to 65 votes.

King Mo-Mo, as he is affectionally known to Moroccans around the globe, is believed to be keen and, unlike Qatar, football is long established in the country, especially since 1986 when they reached the second round in Mexico after beating Paolo Futre’s Portugal 3-1 and drawing with Gary Lineker’s England, before Lothar Matthäus’ late free-kick bounced off the turf and into Ezzaki ‘Zaki’ Badou’s net.

Like Qatar, a World Cup would encourage the western media to inspect social and cultural norms. That said, Morocco has propped its economy up via tourism for over a century.

Human rights would come under the microscope, especially regarding the LGBTQ+ community, as will infrastructure, but the changes required to save face would be minuscule in comparison to Qatar’s brutal 12-year alteration of Doha and its surrounding districts.

It would not, for example, need to corral hundreds of thousands of migrants into building eight stadiums. It could simply dip into its own 37 million population. Morocco is also significantly cheaper than a European holiday so people would flock from all corners of the globe for the looser, more Moroccan-Arab experience.

A behemoth 93,000-seater stadium in Casablanca, initially planned to host the 2010 final, was due for completion in 2025. Cue countless ‘Play it again, Sam’ outros.

The Atlas Lions – a generation of expatriates (age, club, birthplace)

‘Bono’ Yassine Bounou (31) – Sevilla - Montreal, Canada

Achraf Hakimi (24) – PSG – Madrid, Spain

Noussair Mazraoui (25) – Bayern Munich - Leiderdorp, Netherlands

Romain Saïss (32) – Besiktas, capt – Bourg-de-Péage, France

Nayef Aguerd (26) – West Ham – Kenitra, Morocco

Sofyan Amrabat (26) – Fiorentina - Huizen, Netherlands

Abdelhamid Sabiri (26) – Sampdoria – Goulmima, Morocco

Azzedine Ounahi (22) – Angers (France) – Casablanca, Morocco

Hakim Ziyech (29) – Chelsea - Dronten, Netherlands

Youssef En-Nesyri (25) – Sevilla – Fez, Morocco

Sofiane Boufal (29) – Angers (France) – Paris, France

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent