Moroccans struggle to celebrate AFCON debut win amid Gaza war

Moroccans struggle to celebrate AFCON debut win amid Gaza war
Morocco's Atlas Lions are hoping to maintain their legacy in this year's AFCON. However, the stakes are higher. 
3 min read
18 January, 2024
Throughout the Qatar World Cup, Palestine ardently supported the Atlas Lions. [Getty]

Despite Morocco's Atlas Lions' impressive win in their debut at the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) on Wednesday, 17 January, celebrations within Morocco remained tempered and reserved. The public struggled to find joy amid the ongoing tragedy of Israel's war on Gaza.

"It's hard to go chanting and dancing into the streets while we know our brothers in Gaza are being bombed daily," Ahmed, a Moroccan student who joined a crowd of spectators in a café in Rabat, told the New Arab.

Since the start of the Gaza war, Wednesday was the first time cafés in Morocco switched from Al-Jazeera's live broadcasting of the Gaza war to a football game. And for once, customers' discussions moved from cursing Israel to football analysis. 

The war in Gaza has had a significant impact on the region, including the North African kingdom.

Since 7 October, thousands of Moroccan citizens have taken to the streets, calling on Rabat to cut its ties with Israel and close the Israeli liaison office. Moroccan and Israel normalised ties in 2020. 

The pro-Palestine protests have also reached the stadiums. Last week, Ultra supporters of Casablanca's football club Wydad honoured Al-Jazeera's journalist Wael Al-Dahdouh for his bravery as they chanted for a Free Palestine. 

"With his family, he redeems the homeland, and there is no consolation for those who betray," reads a banner the Ultra brandished in Mohammedia stadium with a painted picture of Al-Dahdouh - who has been the face of Al Jazeera Arabic's coverage of Israel's war on Gaza. 

In October, an Israeli strike killed Dahdouh's wife, daughter, son and grandson. Two months later, another strike killed his eldest son. Al-Dahdouh was also injured in an Israeli strike in December. 

On Wednesday's game, several spectators at Rabat's cafés sported keffiyehs with their Moroccan football gear, underscoring the enduring solidarity with Palestine, a core value among Moroccan football fans.  

"We hope Morocco's journey in the AFCON will shed more light on the war in Gaza and will be an opportunity for us to showcase stronger solidarity with Palestinians," Yasser, a Moroccan football fan, told TNA.

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Throughout the Qatar World Cup, Palestine ardently supported the Atlas Lions. 

Across Ramallah, the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, thousands of Palestinians chanted, danced or handed out sweets when Atlas Lions qualified for the tournament's semi-final, becoming the first team in the region to make it that far in the World Cup. 

Atlas Lions are hoping to maintain their legacy this Africa Cup. However, the stakes are higher. 

The conditions of playing AFCON, namely the harsh climate, have constantly sabotaged Morocco's journey in the tournament.  

"We need Riya (strong lungs) more than Niya (having faith)," said Morocco's coach, Walid Regragui, joking after Wednesday's winning game against Tanzania (3-0). Regragui introduced Niya's concept in the Qatar World Cup, advising players and fans to have faith and manifest good results. The concept was hailed as one of the reasons behind Morocco's outstanding journey in the Cup.

Morocco is one of 12 countries in the 24-team field with previous success in the continental championship. Morocco's only past triumph in AFCON was almost a half-century ago, in 1976.