A rivalry heated by history – the significance of Morocco’s World Cup win over Spain

Achraf Hakimi celebrates with his Morocco team-mates while a dejected Unai Simon looks on
Achraf Hakimi’s match-winning penalty in Morocco’s last-16 victory over Spain on 6 December triggered celebrations in cities around Europe

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A Panenka penalty straight down the middle of the goal.

Spain goalkeeper Unai Simon dives to his right and gets nowhere near the ball. Achraf Hakimi, born in Madrid but belonging to Morocco, sets off in celebration.

His manager and team-mates stream on to the pitch in pursuit. And, around the world, the celebrations begin.

On London’s Edgware Road, the car horns blare long and loud. Smoke from the flares cloaks the Christmas lights. Flags flap in the cold December air.

In Paris, in Berlin, in Rotterdam, the images are the same.

However, in the Spanish city of Valencia, it is a little more complicated. Morocco’s last-16 win over Spain at the 2022 World Cup brought the past and present into conflict.

Short presentational grey line

Lina Chafik is a student. Born in Casablanca, she studies at the Polytechnic University of Valencia.

“For me personally when we won against Spain, I could not go to uni the next day,” she said.

“The uni chat groups were not looking good. There was a lot of hate and I did not feel safe to go.

“The game against Spain was a little bit different because of the history that we have.

“Whether we won or lost, we were going to take it very personally. And so were they. The hateful comments from the chat had nothing to do with the game.

“It was more about the colonisation, the fact that we come here to take their opportunities and stuff like that.

“It’s very heated.”

Student Lina Achafik posing in front of flowers
Chafik’s studies have taken her from Morocco to Spain, a journey replicated by about 800,000 of her compatriots

The heat comes from a tangled history.

The present-day tension between the two nations is most clear in the twin coastal towns of Ceuta and Melilla. They have been pockets of Spanish territory on African soil for about 500 years.

Morocco, on whose northern Mediterranean coast they are situated, claim Ceuta and Melilla should revert to its control.

The border between Morocco and the two towns has become a flashpoint in relations – with African migrants attempting to cross into Ceuta and Melilla as a route into Europe.

In June 2022, at least 37 migrants died, crushed to death between six-metre-high fences as the Moroccan border guards used tear gas and batons to hold back crowds attempting to enter Melilla.

Morocco’s influence spreads far across the Mediterranean Sea and back into Spain’s history.

In Andalusia, there is an enormous Islamic, Berber and Moorish influence that has shaped Spanish culture, language and architecture.

Valencia, where Chafik studies, was once known as Medina al-Turab – the city of sand – and monuments that can trace their history back to 14th century Arab rule dot the city.

Today, more than 800,000 Moroccans live in Spain, making them the largest expatriate population.

“It’s the closest European country to Morocco so it’s the easiest to go to,” explained Chafik.

Taoufiq M is another Moroccan who moved to Spain, though he has since returned to the capital Rabat, where he watched that last-16 win at the World Cup.

“It was an emotional rollercoaster,” he said. “The drama was very intense. Luckily it had a happy ending for us which gave us lot of satisfaction and a lot of hope to believe in miracles.

“It was very satisfying to beat Spain because of the long history, the long rivalry between us and them, not only in the sports, but also militarily, politically and economically. It was an extremely sweet result to get one back on them.”

Morocco fans in the Spanish city of Crevillent celebrate their team's victory over Spain at the World Cup
Morocco fans in the Spanish city of Crevillent celebrate their team’s victory over Spain at the World Cup

In Valencia, where Chafik watched the match, there was a heavy police presence during every game of the Atlas Lions’ campaign.

“Whenever there was a game with Morocco there was a lot of police outside because they know that there was a lot of Moroccans here,” she said.

“It’s not a good feeling that the police were only out when Morocco was playing, but I cannot say that I was where anything bad happened.”

Not everywhere was as peaceful.

Arrests were made in the Spanish city of Granada, while footage posted on social media allegedly showed a confrontation between police and female Morocco fans in Ceuta.Short presentational grey line

Many of the Morocco team, like Chafik and Taoufiq, are, or have been, expatriates.

Fourteen players in last year’s World Cup squad were born outside Morocco, and the Atlas Lions have close ties to countries such as France, Spain and the Netherlands.

Coach Walid Regragui embodied this. Born in France, he also played club football in Spain, but, internationally and emotionally, he was only ever Moroccan.

“We didn’t like the fact that previous coaches weren’t Moroccan,” explained Chafik.

“So it felt different this time from the beginning. It felt like he wanted to win as much as the players and the fans because it would mean as much to him.”

She saw the Moroccan roots in the way the team spoke, as well as played.

“A lot of them did grow up in other countries but I feel that they still hold on to their Moroccan side,” said Chafik.

“For example, Tamazight [North African language]. It’s a very old language, translated from generation to generation. They don’t teach it in schools.

“Your parents would have to teach it to you and a lot of the players only speak Tamazight.

“So it was very heart-warming to see that even though they grew up in other countries they still had Morocco in them.”

On the pitch, the victory did away with an inferiority complex that had held back Morocco on the international stage.

“I think sometimes a Moroccan or African player has a complex when they have to play against European or South American teams,” goalkeeper Yassine Bounou, who saved three penalties in the shootout win over Spain, told BBC World Service’s Sportsworld.

“Morocco has shown that it is possible at the next World Cup for other African teams to emulate our performance.

“We opened a door as a https://jusnarte.com team and showed that it is possible for everybody to beat big teams and big players.”

Spain and Morocco’s rivalry on the pitch has reached a new level. Off it though, they are working together.

Morocco is part of a joint bid to stage the 2030 World Cup, alongside Spain and Portugal, and are set to be ratified as hosts at a Fifa congress next year.

“I believe that Spain and Morocco joint bid will bring them closer. I think that the two countries will be close for as long as they have shared interests,” said Taoufiq.

“But at the end of the day, they are competitors – and that competition will never go away.”

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