RABAT, Morocco – Not knowing a single soul in the entire country, I was sceptical about what lay ahead of me. Pressed against the window, a stocky Moroccan man was seated next to me, his name was Imad. We soon began talking and got along quite well, so much so that he offered for me to stay with his family. Another man, on the end of the row, quickly butted in, also offering to host me. They asked me about my travels. I barely knew the answers myself but, in short, I was to attend Darija (Moroccan Arabic) classes for three months, whilst polishing my French.
After haggling for some time with a taxi driver, I arrived at a Riad in the Old Medina: the souks were narrow, busy and bustling with an array of colours, smells and characters.
Several weeks later, I wanted to start fending for myself, so I moved to a more residential quarter – l’Océan. Rabat, compared to Fez, Casa Blanca and Marrakech, is fairly calm – a small costal hub that was once a port for Berber pirates. Although it is the country’s administrative capital, rabaati life is relaxed, close-knit and always behind schedule. The one occasion you can guarantee punctuality, however, is when the nation plays football.
It is the first time Morocco has ever reached the semi-finals of a World Cup. For many, the Atlas Lions represent not only the Arab world, but all of Africa; the weight of a continent is spread across their shoulders.
Last week, I was fortunate enough to experience Morocco’s football enthusiasm in their relentless match against neighbouring Spain. Hours and hours before each previous game, Moroccan fans could be found excitedly blowing horns and waving flags. But, on the morning of the 6th, against the Red Fury, the ambiance in the city was somewhat different. There was an eerie silence, with an occasional dima maghrib, as people paced down the streets, finishing up business for the afternoon – nervousness would be an understatement. Every single café, tearoom and bar in Rabat was jam-packed from the moment they opened their doors at 8am. Finding breakfast and a coffee was near impossible. With no place to watch the match, by some miracle, my friend Hamada called me 20 minutes before kick-off, urging me to join him and his new girlfriend. So, I marched over to the regal zone of the city known as Hassan, where I was met at a restaurant-bar named Les Deux Palais. With just ten minutes before the match started, there were no chairs left. Hamada worked tirelessly to find us a seat. By chance, a group of men were outside smoking the last bits of what they will, when they saw our struggle and simply asked “sblyoonee?”, my friend replied, “la, ngleezee.” Magically, an armchair appeared in front of me.
The secluded bar was rather uninviting from the outside; each time the grand cedar doors opened, a thick cloud of smoke was let out. Inside, it was a ruckus, everyone was fidgety and restless, making anxious small talk to try and calm their nerves. Five minutes before kick-off, the doors were bolted shut, Les Deux Palais was well beyond its capacity. Most people were eating tapas; my friend and I tucked into a tortilla on our laps. As the national anthem rang out, a sea of red and green swayed gently from left to right. The whistle was blown, and everyone sharply found their seats.
In the first few minutes I was probing for predictions. Normally, the fans are optimistic about how many goals the Lions will score, this time however, everybody was clueless, “any goal will be a blessing, inshallah”, Rania El Hibari; “our team is super strong brother, but I cannot comment. I have no idea what will happen in the next 90 minutes”, Ahmed Chmichat.
The first half was indeed tight; there was lots of applause and high pitch weleweleweles. Morocco had its first chance with Nayef Aguerd but there was no success; Marco Asensio of Spain narrowly missed a goal. At halftime, Morocco were on the ropes as Spain had greater possession and presence in their opponent’s box. Hope was still not lost though; after all, Morocco scored its two winning goals against Belgium in the final 15 minutes. Later, Spanish midfielder, Dani Olmo, would make an attempt, but Yassine Bounou would bat it away. With the match going into extra time, a penalty shootout was looking more and more likely. For the fans watching in Rabat, it was a sickening wait, for I, a foreigner, it was thrilling.
Morocco’s first goal was sweet and sure as Abdelhamid Sabiri pounded the ball into the centre of the net. Pablo Sarabia for Spain then attempted to place the ball in the bottom right corner, instead hitting the post; 1-0 Morocco. Hakim Ziyech then secured Morocco’s second goal with yet another powerful shot; 2-0. Next, it was Bounou’s chance to shine as he quickly jerked before diving to his left to deflect a Spanish shot. Badr Benoun then tried to slowly tap the ball in, but it was brought to an immediate halt by Unai Símon. Again, Spain had no luck against Bounou as he palmed away another shot. Finally, it was down to Achraf Hakimi who would bring the match to a close and score the third goal for Morocco’s win.
Shortly after, the entire city took to the streets in revolutionary fashion. It was a race to Morocco’s Telecom Tower in Hay Riad. On our way, people of all ages were hanging out of cars singing to Raï and Chaabi, draped in flags and waving at pedestrians dancing in the road. On this one occasion, the guards outside the Palais Royal removed the barrier to the road adjacent to the King’s garden, saluting us as we sped past. Outside the Telecom Tower supporters were waving red flares; letting off fireworks; climbing up flagpoles; and beating drums. Even the King made a surprise appearance. Everyone was in high spirits and car horns rang out into the early hours of the morning.
In football, yes, but in life in general, Moroccans are extremely proud and friendly people. They kindly shared their victory with me and will do so with every other country not remaining in the World Cup. Even if they do not win, their progress to tonight’s semi-final has been enough to build a new confidence for underdog countries in tournaments to follow. Dima maghrib.
Image: Alfie Williams-Hughes