France vs. Morocco: Joy and Anxiety Collide Before World Cup Semifinal

KSAR EL KEBIR, Morocco — Ahead of the World Cup semifinal between Morocco and France on Wednesday, the flip side of Moroccans’ euphoria at having made it this far in the tournament was excruciating stress.

In Casablanca, a young woman said she kept dreaming that Morocco had lost, waking up in a clammy sweat night after night, while her friend has been devouring so much soccer content on social media each night before bed that she saw one of the players smiling triumphantly in her sleep. And in the town of Ksar el Kebir, amid the strawberry fields and low green hills of northern Morocco, people were begging God for their hometown hero, the star defender Achraf Hakimi, to give them a reason to once again lose their minds with joy.

“We hope we win, but it’s in the hands of God,” said Houda el-Asri, 36, who was taking the trash out on Tuesday afternoon in Ksar el Kebir, where Mr. Hakimi’s mother grew up before immigrating to Spain. Mr. Hakimi was born in Spain, returning regularly to Morocco to visit family.

But fatalism this was not. “I’m scared,” Ms. El-Asri confessed a second after consigning her fate to God, grinning. “Just like with the last game, I can’t stop thinking about it. Are we going to win? Are we going to lose?”

In the eyes of the world, Morocco — a country of 37 million in Africa’s northwestern corner, better known internationally for tourism than sports — was never supposed to get this far. Then it upset Spain (which occupied northern Morocco for decades) in last week’s round of 16. Then it stunned Portugal (which invaded Morocco in the 1400s) on Saturday in the quarterfinals, becoming the first Arab or African team to reach the semifinals.

All of a sudden, Morocco was the ultimate underdog, the fairy-tale princess, the rejuvenator of Pan-Arab and African solidarity, the champion of the world’s colonized against the world’s colonizers­ — bringer of dreams, ruiner of sleep.

For many Moroccans, Wednesday’s match has become a chance to show what a supposed nobody can do.

“As a developing country and former colony, and for countries from the third world in general, there’s this idea we can’t accomplish much,” said Salahdine Hamidi, a city councilman in Ksar el Kebir, where banners with the team’s photo hung around town and Moroccan flags adorned cafes and motorcycles. “It’s important to prove them wrong.”

His colleagues outlined efforts in the town and beyond to develop Moroccan soccer talent: new sports academies, new stadiums (including two named after Mr. Hakimi) and new training programs. They pointed out that Morocco had brought both talent and strategy to each World Cup match in Doha, Qatar, not just luck. They said that Morocco had a fair chance against France, the defending world champion.

For Moroccans, however, France is not only a soccer power, but also a former colonial one, making it the foe they would most hate to lose to and the one they would most love to beat. France ran a protectorate in Morocco until 1956, when Morocco gained independence, and it is still strongly identified with the Moroccan elite, who tend to speak French and send their children to French-curriculum schools.

“There is, of course, the whole post-colonial context, which means that this confrontation is marked by a common past,” said Fatine Arafati, 26, an artist from Casablanca, whose nights had recently been marked by vivid, celebratory soccer dreams.

In the past year, diplomatic tensions between the two countries have risen over revelations that Morocco may have been monitoring the cellphone of President Emmanuel Macron of France using Pegasus spyware, as well as France’s restrictions on visas for Moroccans despite the strong ties between the two countries.

Combined with the discrimination and racism Moroccans and Muslims experience in France, the recent conflicts have pushed young Moroccans, more and more of whom study English instead of French in school, increasingly to reject France and its influence.

“It’s a place with a colonizing mentality, a repressive mentality, the way they treat people from here,” said Hamid Mouh, 31, a cousin of Mr. Hakimi’s. “The whole world, not just France, they’re going to start respecting Morocco.”

Though soccer is highly popular in Morocco, the pride attached to this particular team has gone far beyond sports.

There is the fact that 14 of the team’s players grew up in Europe yet chose to play for the country of their ancestry — making it the team in Qatar with the most nonnative-born players. In Mr. Hakimi’s case, he has said in interviews, he’s playing for Morocco at the World Cup because of the bigotry he has faced in Spain, where he played for Real Madrid, and in Paris, where he now plays for Paris St.-Germain, alongside the biggest star of the France’s national team, Kylian Mbappé.

There is also the fact that several Moroccan players’ parents followed the common path of immigrating to Europe to support their families through menial labor, like Mr. Hakimi’s mother, a house cleaner, and father, a street vendor. Several of the players, including Mr. Hakimi, even insist on giving interviews in Moroccan Arabic, despite speaking English, French or Spanish.

“He’s not ashamed of his background,” Rehima Korriz, 24, who runs a beauty salon in the neighborhood of Mr. Hakimi’s family, said with pride. (When asked about his Arabic, however, honesty compelled her to note that he still spoke with a strong accent.)

If all of that was not enough to melt Moroccans’ hearts, they stood little chance against the videos of players like Mr. Hakimi running to the stands to kiss their mothers after each victory. The team’s coach, a French Moroccan, has said the team flew a group of players’ mothers to the tournament to boost morale.

“In Morocco, it’s normal to love your parents and honor them in this way, especially moms,” said Sanaa Mhammedi, 48, who lives in the Old Medina neighborhood of Ksar el Kebir, home to some of Mr. Hakimi’s relatives. “The other teams aren’t doing this with their moms. They party with their wives, not their moms.”

Speaking of moms, she said, her mother, with whom she lived, was the loudest fan she knew. They had shelled out for the expensive World Cup subscription on satellite TV so they could watch at home, screaming as much as they wanted to.

Others were packing the town’s cafes, including women, who traditionally never sit watching soccer in such places, and people who had no idea what the rules were but were praying for victory anyway. The City Council had planned a huge party for Wednesday evening, where the match would be broadcast and a D.J. was scheduled to play.

Every time the team won, Ksar el Kebir’s population seemed to empty into the streets.

“Everybody, poor and rich, educated and not, is happy,” Ms. Mhammedi said. “Because it’s the national team; it’s become sacred.”

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