Sixteen players from the Moroccan World Cup squad were born and raised in Europe. They could also have played for another country.
It is sad for the Italians that they are not there at this World Cup football. To Corriere della Sera not looking forward to the World Cup will be related to it, but the Italian newspaper also made an interesting point: they believe that this World Cup serves uniform sausage. “There is no longer Brazilian or French football, teams have long lost their national identity,” wrote the newspaper in a preview. “There are only good Brazilian or French footballers left, and they all play with a European mentality according to European principles. Modern football therefore favors countries that emigrate. That trend will only grow.’
If so, things look good for Morocco, the opponent of the Red Devils at Doha’s Al Thumama Stadium on Sunday. Of the twenty-six players in the Moroccan selection, barely ten were born and raised in the country itself. Most of the core have grown up in France, Spain or the Netherlands. Four players have Belgian roots: Ilias Chair from Antwerp, Selim Amallah from Saint-Ghislain, Anass Zaroury from Mechelen and Bilal El Khanouss from Grimbergen.
Sixteen players out of a total of twenty-six is a lot. Morocco has a population of 37 million, while the Moroccan community outside Morocco is estimated at 4.5 million. The composition of the Moroccan team tells two stories. One is sporting, the other social: the undeniable superiority of Western European football and the plight of European migrant children, forced between two homelands.
First about the superiority. For most pundits, Brazil and Argentina are favorites to win this World Cup. But that would go against the trend: in general, football is played nowhere better than in (Western) Europe, and the football education is unsurpassed. In the last five World Cups, only two non-UEFA countries have finished in the top three. Africa is one of the losers of the firm European grip on world football. In the 1970s, Pelé predicted that an African country would win the World Cup in the foreseeable future, but in reality the results of the African teams deteriorated. In 2014, Morocco came up with a plan to reverse that trend.
Black and white
That year, Morocco’s arch-rivals Algeria reached the second round of the World Cup. Their 23-man squad included sixteen French-born players. The Moroccan Football Federation launched a recruitment campaign to warm up talent from the diaspora to the national team. In the beginning it didn’t work very well, but today the best European Moroccans play with the Atlas Lions. Soccer star Hakim Ziyech was courted by the Orange, but chose Morocco. Belgium is also losing talent: eighteen-year-old Bilal El Khanouss, sensation at the start of the season at Racing Genk, would certainly have had a chance with the Red Devils in the long term.
Ziyech and El Khanouss are grandchildren of the migration. You would expect their relationship with Morocco to diminish. “You can’t make generally valid statements about this, it plays out differently in every migrant family,” says Amir Bachrouri. The chairman for
The Flemish Youth Council and Knack columnist himself has Moroccan roots and is a contemporary of El Khanouss. “One sees Morocco as the country of carefree summer holidays, the other experiences a deep feedback to the family. When there is such a deep connection, it can continue for generations to come. And in addition to emotional reasons, opportunism undoubtedly plays a role as well. The footballers wonder in which country they will get playing opportunities and which team has good prospects.’
New York Times sees another reason why migrant children who play football prefer to play for the country of their parents or grandparents. The American newspaper refers to the election results for Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders: ‘The countries where these players grow up seem to reject them.’ Do you want to profile yourself as Moroccan because of the rise of the extreme right wing, is there anything in that? It is possible, Bachrouri believes, but he also thinks that it is too easy an explanation. ‘Identity is simply a theme in 2022: you will see that in almost all election results. Bicultural youth feel an incentive to take a stand, just like everyone else. The devastating thing about those footballers is that it is very black and white with them: you choose one country or the other. You disappoint one of the two. It feels like a rejection and there is no going back. What a dilemma for such young guys. I wouldn’t want to be in their place’.
Loud Dutch people
Moreover, it is not easy to bring players with such different backgrounds together, says Hervé Renard, former national coach in Morocco. Not only culturally, but also linguistically. The Moroccan squad includes footballers who speak Spanish, French, Dutch or German on a daily basis, in addition to footballers who express themselves in Arabic or Tamazight, a Berber language spoken in Morocco. According to Renard, the big challenge is not to let it degenerate into two camps: the European Moroccans against the Moroccans.
If Rayane Bounida chooses the Moroccan team, it would be sour for the youth coaches of the KBVB.
Amir Bachrouri can imagine the cultural clashes in this way. “It’s always fun to talk to young Europeans who call themselves proud Moroccans and then see them again when they’ve actually lived in Morocco,” he says. ‘They find that they are much more European in life than they ever realised. Identity is a multi-layered concept, but where you grow up still leaves its mark. A Moroccan from Antwerp has different views than a resident of Liège. Most Flemish Moroccans find Moroccan Dutch to be a bit loud and talkative, while we are more subdued.’
Now multiculturalism in a football team is not a weakness, on the contrary. The Red Devils know this well enough: since the integration of Belgian talents with foreign roots has been successful, the national team has topped the world rankings. The Belgian squad has players with roots in Spain, Martinique, Ghana and Senegal and several players whose parents migrated from the Congo. Red Devils of Moroccan origin are missing this time, but Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli played an important role in the past.
Fellaini had a lightning career, from unknown youth player to Belgian national team player in just over a year and a half. He was never on the radar of the Moroccan national team. There was a lot to do in Morocco around Chadli. The winger played an exhibition match for Morocco and was immediately named Man of the Match. The Lions of Atlas thought they had found their new star. But in the end, Chadli chose Belgium, allegedly convinced by his childhood friend Axel Witsel.
Red Devils Fellaini and Chadli were presented as symbols of integration in their heyday. Are we to see the fact that their successors prefer to play for the Moroccan national team as evidence to the contrary? In any case, Chadli had a hard time in the Moroccan migrant community. ‘Sport and nationality run on emotions’, reassures Bachrouri. He especially remembers how proud the Moroccan Belgians were of Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli in the match against Japan at the previous World Cup. ‘Belgium were almost eliminated, but their goal saved the team. That moment was significant for Moroccan society, which feels connected to Fellaini and Chadli. Many boys recognize themselves in their life story. Which country they play for was of secondary importance.’
Not racist, but…
As soon as a footballer plays an international match with commitment, his football nationality is definitively established. Youth or friendly matches do not count. There is quite a bit of back and forth between the youth national teams. Anass Zaroury, who was eventually called up to the Moroccan World Cup squad, qualified with Belgium for the U21 European Championship. Recently, the Belgian federation was able to convince three players from the Moroccan U17 to choose the Red Devils. Bilal El Khanouss has long been criticized by Belgium and Morocco. The Grimbergen resident was a regular in the Belgian youth selections, but played a friendly with Morocco against Madagascar in September. National coach Roberto Martínez immediately contacted the young midfielder, but it was too late.
“My choice was already made,” El Khanouss said The newspaper. ‘I understand that not everyone understands that choice, but at the end of the day it’s my career and I make the decisions myself.’ His choice for Morocco is one of the heart. “I want to make my grandparents proud,” declared the young soccer star. Players like El Khanouss do not make it easy for themselves. Being an international in an African country means a lot of travel kilometers and the Africa Cup every two years in January, at a difficult time in the season. There are stories of players being pressured by their club to decline selection. And there are also clubs that prefer not to transfer African internationals because they often have to miss those players.
Missing El Khanouss and Zaroury puts things on edge at the Belgian FA for an even more exciting case: what will Rayane Bounida do? The now sixteen-year-old playmaker is seen as the best the Belgian youth academy has to offer. Bounida swapped Anderlecht for Ajax this summer, although he could actually sign wherever he wanted. The midfielder has dual nationality and is good friends with El Khanouss.
For the youth coaches in the KBVB, a choice for Morocco would be sour. When he was the French national coach, Laurent Blanc advocated banning players with dual nationality from the national football academies. ‘I don’t mean it in a racist way, but it annoys me that boys who learn the trade in our national youth selections choose African teams for the adults. We train our competitors,” Blanc said. A wave of indignation followed. Blanc apologized and retracted his words.
Tom Saintfiet: ‘Don’t underestimate Morocco’
Roberto Martínez did not get his help. However, there is a Belgian coach who beat Morocco. Tom Saintfiet, the Belgian national coach of Gambia, won a friendly match in Casablanca in 2019 with 0-1. “We had 21 percent possession, but we played it smart, frustrated the Moroccans and cut them off in the zone of truth,” says Saintfiet. ‘Morocco is a good team that the Belgians should not underestimate. In terms of player material, the Moroccans are hardly inferior, with players at Chelsea, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain. Much depends on the tactics that national coach Walid Regragui sends his team onto the field with. North African teams like to rely on their own strength, but an open game plays into the hands of the Red Devils. If Morocco opts for counter football, I see Belgium, with its slower, older defence, beating it.’