Soccer-Arab world rejoices as Morocco reach World Cup quarter-final


Morocco fans gather to celebrate their team's victory against Spain in the 2022 Qatar World Cup Round of 16. in Bilbao, Spain, December 6, 2022. REUTERS/Vincent West

DOHA/RABAT (Reuters) - Moroccans wildly celebrating their team's historic World Cup knockout victory over Spain on Tuesday were joined by people across the Middle East and North Africa ecstatic at what they saw as a victory for the entire Arab world.

From Baghdad to Casablanca, fans cheered as Morocco became the first Arabic-speaking country to reach the quarter-finals of the World Cup in Qatar, the first held in an Arab country. They won 3-0 on penalties after a 0-0 draw following extra time.

In Rabat, where fans had crowded cafes for hours beforehand to watch the game, people jammed downtown roads leading to a square where fans had partied after previous Morocco victories, flags waving from their windows and horns furiously sounding.

"It's the first time I had this feeling!" said Fahd Belbachir, on his way to the city centre. "We're so proud."

Leaders from across the Arab world showered praise on the Moroccan side.

"Congratulations to the Atlas lions, you delighted us. Wow Morocco, you did it again!", Queen Rania of Jordan wrote on Twitter.

In Rabat, Brahim Ait Belkhit said the spontaneous mood of joy was so great that he had patched up a feud with somebody he had avoided for years and then saw in the street. "It made us forget our old quarrel," he said.

Cheers also went up in Cairo, Beirut, Tunis, Amman, Ramallah as Arabs rejoiced at the largely unexpected win over highly fancied Spain.

It echoed the pan-Arab pride that has surfaced during several memorable performances by Arab sides at the Qatar World Cup - a contrast to the political disputes that have long divided Arab states.

Outside the stadium in Doha, where Moroccan fans had appeared to vastly outnumber Spaniards with more than 44,000 people attending, women raised their voices in ululation and men banged drums in a spontaneous dance party.

Hundreds of Moroccan fans had flown into Qatar for the game, joining the large number of resident Moroccans, and there had been some scuffles as people without tickets were unable to enter the stadium.

"I grew up watching big Spanish teams Barcelona and Madrid. So to beat a huge country like Spain is a huge victory for Morocco," said Moroccan national Taha Lahrougui, 23, who lives in Doha.

Victory over Spain, which ruled swathes of Morocco in the colonial era and where many Moroccans now live, may have felt particularly sweet.

Fans packed Barcelona's Raval neighbourhood, waving Moroccan flags, cheering and lighting flares. The winning penalty taker, Achraf Hakimi, was himself born in Madrid.

Ahmed Inoubli, half Tunisian, half Algerian, living in Doha and married to a Moroccan woman said "nothing is impossible" at the World Cup.

"We have an Arab team. Look at these fans. Do you think they are all Moroccan? No - just Arabs," he said gesturing towards the enormous, joyful crowd.

ARAB AND AFRICAN VICTORY

Qatar's Emir Tamim watched the game in the stadium, giving a thumbs up and holding the Moroccan flag, and congratulations for the winning team quickly poured in from Arab leaders.

Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Libyan Prime Minister Abdulhamid al-Dbeibah were among those to congratulate Morocco.

“This is a win for all Arabs, not just Morocco and the joy is even greater since it was achieved on Arab soil,” said Hazem al Fayez, a Jordanian who was honking his car horn in Amman to celebrate.

“I think it’s a great and much-needed win for the youth of the Arab world and especially the youth of Morocco," said Ralph Beydoun, 31, in Beirut.

At a Tunis cafe, fans clapped and sang as the game finished. "It is a historic win and Morocco is honouring all Arabs and Africans," said Nourredine Sassi.

Mohamed Aly, a 35-year-old Egyptian, said he felt nervous as he watched the match in Cairo. "Playing in Qatar helps them a lot, all Arab fans are supporting them there," he said.

Morocco are also the last African team left in the tournament and only the fourth to ever reach the quarter-finals after Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010.

Morocco has in recent decades more fully embraced its African and Amazigh, as well as Arab, identity, and the victory was also cheered elsewhere in the continent.

Sudan's deputy ruling council head Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo tweeted "Thanks to the Atlas lions", adding "congratulations for the Arab and African fans".

"This is a dream come true. We won - and Africa won with us," said Lahcen Damolay, a teacher in the crowd cheering their country's victory in central Rabat.

(This story has been corrected to fix the country names and the dates on African teams that reached the quarter-finals in past tournaments in paragraph 24)

(Reporting by Ahmed Eljechtimi in Rabat, Andrew Mills in Doha, Laila Bassam and Timour Azhari in Beirut, Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Nayera Abdallah and Alaa Swilam in Cairo, Ghaida Ghantous in Dubai, Tarek Amara in Tunis and Horaci Garcia in Barcelona, Suleimam al-Khalidi in Amman, Osama Khairy in Cairo; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Tom Perry, Angus MacSwan and Ken Ferris)

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