In a World Cup soccer tournament of astonishing twists and turns, the unmistakable takeaway is simply this: the football world is now becoming ‘flat’, a metaphor for an increasingly level playing field in the most competitive of sports. The dramatic rise 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 globalization.
It isn’t as if this is the first time a rank outsider has made it to the top bracket of a World Cup. In 2002, South Korea were surprise semi-finalists while unfancied Turkey finished third. African countries like Cameroon, Senegal and Algeria have upset some of the world’s best teams in the past. Go back even further in time to North Korea defeating the mighty Italians in 1966. Yet, in many instances, these were seen as fluke victories that didn’t signal a paradigm shift in sporting power. Morocco’s incredible run is very different, built around a system that signals the transformative nature of sport.
The most striking feature of the Moroccan success story is the fact that fourteen members of their 26 member squad were born outside Morocco, a majority of them from the mushrooming migrant communities in Europe and beyond who have been at the heart of their achievements. Before the tournament began, the hugely influential Hakim Ziyech was probably the only globally recognized 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 Ambrabat 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 in football 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 European countries to create a climate of mutual suspicion, even hostility, between Arab Muslims and mainstream European 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 talent and equal opportunity above all else. Over a 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 embrace diversity: the Swiss captain Granit Xhaka is of Albanian origin as is the team’s star midfielder, Xherdan Shaqiri. Several members of the Swiss squad were born abroad, a sign of just how more open immigration policies have re-defined societies.
In 2018, a majority of the World Cup winning French team were migrants or children of migrants. The 2022 squad is no different, a number of 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 recognized at an early age by talent scouts in the Paris club AS Bondy. Many of the French players have been products of this club system that promotes a multi-racial sporting culture where skill matters above all else.
Even the English, whose football eco-system was once seen as not inclusive enough, have nurtured a team that is far more representative of a ‘new’ multi-cultural 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 a 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 the South American powerhouses – Brazil and Argentina — whose players are still mostly home grown, 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 multi-cultural 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 migration. Britain’s Brexit supporters exacerbated an anti-immigration sentiment as did a Donald Trump and his Republican cohorts in the United States.
In India too, many local and national politicians have fostered a narrow parochial mindset that build walls within societies. Preferential treatment to ‘sons of the soil’ maybe 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 then it becomes a destructive force that only divides society for electoral benefit. Recall how in 2008 North Indian migrants from UP and Bihar were bashed up in Mumbai by workers from Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. Or indeed how students from north east were beaten up a few years ago for not speaking in Kannada. Or how Kashmiris have been victims of hate and bigotry in different parts of India.
Truth is, inter-state and global migration has 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 have not only built the infrastructure of those countries – including the showpiece football stadium in Qatar – but also ensured a robust remittance economy that has transformed the landscape of states like Kerala. Remittances from the vast global Indian diaspora to their home country were the highest in the world at $89 billion or 3% of GDP in 2021 according to the World Bank.
Which is why the triumph of the football migrant is a powerful message to India and a globalizing world: countries that creatively promote mobility of talent across regions and nations are the ones that will grow and prosper. What Moroccan football has done today, the rest of the world must do tomorrow.
Post-script: There is an eternal question asked ahead of every World Cup cycle: when will India qualify for the World Cup soccer finals? Unlikely in the near future but perhaps one day when a mass sport is taken to every street corner, like it happened with cricket. And yes, when equal opportunity to play is available to every child. Till then, lets rejoice in living the ultimate Moroccan underdog dream.