The Morocco miracle in a World Cup of migrants
Football has embraced true multiculturalism as is evident across nations. Morocco’s triumph is a hallmark of this embrace
In a World Cup football tournament of astonishing twists and turns, the most compelling takeaway is this: The football world is now becoming “flat” — a metaphor for an increasingly level-playing field in the most competitive of sports. The miracle of Morocco, the first African team to reach the World Cup semi-finals, is proof that a new order is emerging in the sport, one shaped by forces linked to changing patterns of globalisation.
The most striking feature of the Moroccan success story is the fact that 14 of their 26-member squad were born outside Morocco, a majority of them from migrant communities in Europe and beyond. Before the tournament began, the hugely influential Hakim Ziyech was probably the only globally recognised Moroccan player because he is part of London’s blue-chip club, Chelsea. But now, the likes of Canadian-born goalkeeper, Younes Bounou, Madrid-born Achraf Hakimi, Dutch-born Sofyan Amrabat, and French-born Sofiane Boufal have become stars in their own right, typifying an indomitable spirit that has been the hallmark of the Moroccan performance.
It is this triumph of the Moroccan migrant that illuminates just how sport can break boundaries that politics often struggles to conquer. There are an estimated five million Moroccan migrants in Europe alone, part of a wider 25 million-plus Arab immigrant population across the continent. Their strong presence has encouraged far-Right politicians across Europe to create a climate of mutual suspicion and hostility between Arab Muslims and mainstream society. A dominant narrative has pigeonholed Arab Muslim immigrants as a threat to national identity, domestic security and social cohesion.
The beautiful game fortunately has no time for such ugly stereotypes, preferring to see the sport as a platform to showcase raw talent and equal opportunity. Over 125 players in Qatar are playing for countries they were not born in. Even the European countries that have done well in recent times are those that have embraced diversity: Swiss captain, Granit Xhaka, is of Albanian origin, as is the team’s star player, Xherdan Shaqiri.
In 2018, a majority of the World Cup-winning French team were migrants or children of migrants. The 2022 squad is no different, with several players tracing their African roots. Kylian Mbappe, the outstanding French superstar, has a Cameroon-born father and a mother of Algerian Kabyle heritage, his prodigious talent recognised at an early age by a club system that promotes a genuine multi-racial sporting culture.
Even the English, whose football ecosystem was once seen as not inclusive enough, have nurtured a team that is far more representative of a new multicultural Britain. Just contrast the “Whites only” 1966 World Cup-winning English team with the young guns who shone at the 2022 tournament. Then be it Bukayo Saka, born of Nigerian parents, or Raheem Sterling, born in Jamaica, or Jude Bellingham and Marcus Rashford, English fortunes and even their style of play has been transformed by the rise of iconic Black footballers who have become role models for an entire generation. Except for the South American powerhouses — Brazil and Argentina — whose players are still mostly homegrown, the rest of the world has rapidly broken national boundaries on the football field.
Which leads one to ask: If football can benefit from actively encouraging a multicultural ethos and migrant identities, why is the rest of society a step behind? Europe’s far-Right politicians continue to rail against a more open border policy for immigration. Britain’s Brexit supporters exacerbated anti-immigration sentiments as did Donald Trump and his Republican cohorts in the United States.
In India, too, many politicians have fostered a narrow parochial mindset that builds walls within societies. Preferential treatment to “sons of the soil” may be seen as a political and economic necessity in times of fierce job competition, but when it becomes a credo that consciously discriminates against skilled workers from other parts of the country, it becomes a destructive force that only divides society for electoral benefit.
Recall how in 2008, migrants from Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bihar were beaten up in Mumbai by members of Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. Or indeed how students from the Northeast were beaten up a few years ago for not speaking in Kannada. Or how Kashmiris have been victims of hatred and bigotry in different parts of India.
The truth is interstate and transnational migration have contributed immensely to greater prosperity across geographies. The north Indian migrants who drive small and medium businesses and the service sector in Mumbai have lifted many families in UP and Bihar out of poverty. The wave of Indian migrants to the Gulf countries has not only built the infrastructure of those countries — including the showpiece football stadium in Qatar — but also ensured a robust remittance economy that transformed the landscape of states such as Kerala. Remittances from the vast global Indian diaspora to their home country were the highest in the world at $89 billion or 3% of the Gross Domestic Product in 2021, according to the World Bank.
Which is why the triumph of the football migrant is a powerful message to India and a globalising world: Countries that creatively promote the mobility of talent across regions and nations are the ones that will grow and prosper. What Moroccan football has achieved today, the rest of the world must accomplish tomorrow.
Post-script: There is an eternal question asked ahead of every World Cup cycle: When will India qualify for the World Cup finals? Highly unlikely in the near future, but perhaps it might just happen when a mass sport is taken to every street corner, as it happened with cricket. And yes, when equal opportunity to play is available to every school-going child. Until then, let’s rejoice in living the ultimate Moroccan underdog dream.
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author
The views expressed are personal