Atlas Lions: Diaspora players find a home in Morocco's World Cup team

Illustration - Analysis - Morocco
6 min read
23 November, 2022
In-depth: Footballers who can play for multiple countries often face a complex decision - one typically guided by family ties and emotion on one side, and careful professional calculation on the other.

In the World Cup, where nationalist sentiments often reign supreme, some footballers consider the nations of their parents and grandparents a better fit than the countries they have long called home.       

Morocco ranks first in this department, with only twelve of the World Cup’s twenty-six-man squad born on Moroccan soil. Two of those Morocco-born players left the North African kingdom at an early age to join the Moroccan diaspora in Europe. 

The Atlas Lions’ new coach Walid Regragui, a former Moroccan international player, was also born in France.

France, along with the Netherlands, is the birthplace of the majority of the players that are sporting the Moroccan jersey this World Cup. Other players are from Belgium, Italy, Canada, and Spain. 

Morocco isn’t the only team at the World Cup that has cast a net beyond its borders to create a strong team. However, the high number of dual nationality players in the Atlas Lions’ squad has garnered attention.

"In 1998, Morocco's World Cup team had only two players born outside of the country. This time around, they have 17 diaspora players"

Players find a home in Morocco

In 1998, Morocco's World Cup team had only two players born outside of the country.

Two decades later, the Atlas Lions finally made it to the international tournament again, but this time with 17 diaspora players.

Many of the current stars are products of a recruitment campaign that gained force in 2014.

But some point out that it would not have been successful if social exclusion and marginalisation were not concerns for many players.

“Amid rising nationalism sentiments in Europe, many diaspora players are overly criticised just for the fact of being of foreign descent,” Amer Zenbaa, a Moroccan journalist based in France, told The New Arab.

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Zenbaa said that Hakim Ziyech’s story is a case study that highlights the appeal of Morocco to players born in the diaspora.

Hakim Ziyech, born in the Netherlands, played for the Dutch national youth team until he decided to join Morocco’s senior team in 2015.

In 2017, the Dutch-born player strongly criticised the racism and prejudice he faced in Dutch stadiums.

"If you make any small mistake here knowing that you are of Moroccan origin, you are the victim of exaggerated criticism unlike the ethnic Dutch who have a greater margin of error and benefit from much indulgence," said Ziyech in an interview with a local Dutch magazine 

“The funniest thing is that when you succeed in your life by being an exemplary citizen you are no longer a Moroccan but a Dutch man in their eyes."

Diaspora players find a home in Morocco's World Cup team
Morocco's national team warms up ahead of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group F match with Croatia at the Al Bayt Stadium on 23 November 2022 in Al Khor, Qatar. [Getty]

Last year, Ziyech quit the Moroccan team after a brawl with Bosnian ex-coach Vahid Halilhodzic. This World Cup, he made it back into the squad following an intervention from the Moroccan federation of Football and the appointment of a new manager.

Sofyan Amrabat, who like Ziyech represented the Netherlands at a junior level, declined his birthland’s approaches and joined Morocco’s World Cup squad, largely for his parents and grandparents, who would be proud of him playing for their mother nation.

“My parents are Moroccan and my grandparents are Moroccan. Every time I go there I can't describe the feeling inside me in words, it's my home. The Netherlands is also my home, but Morocco is special,” Amrabat told reporters in 2021.

The Moroccan diaspora may leave Morocco but Morocco never leaves them. Moroccan immigrants take a certain pride in their food, culture, religion, and language, raising their children in Moroccan households outside of Morocco.

"Amid rising nationalism sentiments in Europe, many diaspora players are overly criticised just for the fact of being of foreign descent"

The national team and 'home'

Footballers who can play for multiple countries often face a complex decision, one typically guided by family ties and emotion on one side, and careful professional calculation on the other.

“To be honest, securing a place in European teams is a very competitive task. So, many players opt for the Moroccan team to play at the World Cup,” Moroccan journalist Zenbaa told The New Arab.

The possibility for football players with dual nationalities to choose the national team they want to play for usually ends up angering fast-tempered football fans on one side or another. 

Players born in a country other than that of the national team for which they play have represented countries in the FIFA World Cup since it began in 1930.

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In 2020, FIFA relaxed the rules on switching international team allegiance in recognition of the complexities of individual identity that accompany an increasingly globalised world.

Mounir Haddadi, a Spanish-Moroccan football player, has benefited from the new rules, which enabled him to switch to the Moroccan team after playing one match with Spain’s senior squad.

When he first chose Spain, Haddadi faced firm criticism from Moroccan fans who called him out for his “betrayal”.

But there are also practical concerns that drive some Moroccan football players to opt for their European nation, argues Moroccan journalist Zenbaa.

“[Playing in the African side] came with many challenges including the climate conditions and the reliance on physical power in African tournaments which is not the case in European countries,” said Zenbaa.

Diaspora players find a home in Morocco's World Cup team
Some players, such as Hakim Ziyech, have highlighted the racism footballers of Moroccan origin can experience in Europe. [Getty]

And making oneself available for the African continental championship, which involves missing club games, can often create major conflicts between players and their European teams.

The cosmopolitan nature of the team can also present challenges.

Morocco's World Cup team contains a diversity of languages, including Arabic, Dutch, French, and Spanish. Arabic, English, and French are reportedly used to communicate among teammates.

“Sometimes that leads to the outburst of different clans in one team. The Dutch on one side, the French on the other, etc. (…) that can cause miscommunication and division which is absolutely not good in football,” Zenbaa told The New Arab.

Meanwhile, the 'westernisation' of the Moroccan team has provoked criticism against the Moroccan federation of football.

"Footballers who can play for multiple countries often face a complex decision, one typically guided by family ties and emotion on one side, and careful professional calculation on the other"

Stumbling over the national anthem's lyrics, speaking French in interviews, or failing to reflect 'Moroccan culture' have put some of the national team's players under the spotlight on several occasions.

It has also sparked a conversation about the criteria which the Moroccan federation follows in picking the team’s players.

“We used to joke saying you need a red passport not a green one to play at the national team,” said Zenbaa. “Sometimes, some players get offered the opportunity just for their European training.”

“We have many competent players whose career is mainly focused in Morocco but they have enough skills to join the team. It is a tricky conversation but the stigma is present.”

Basma El Atti is The New Arab's correspondent in Morocco.

Follow her on Twitter: @elattibasma