The city of Angers, France is located on a hill in the heart of the Loire Valley. It played a central role in the history of France: its cathedral was consecrated in 1096, and the Edict of Nantes, which put an end to the bloody wars of Religion in France, was written there in 1598 by King Henry IV.
Today, the city feeds on other stories. Along its southern edge is the neighborhood rose garden, which from the late 1960s became the site of several large housing projects, some of which are outside most French cities and home to diverse populations, including many immigrants and children immigrants from former French colonies in North and West Africa. . In one of these complexes, Zoubida Belmoulat, an immigrant from Morocco, raised her three sons, including Sofiane Boufal, the 29-year-old virtuoso winger of the Moroccan national football team.
Throughout France, these public housing estates have become, in recent decades, one of the most important hearts of world football. In the 1980s, players such as Zinedine Zidane (from Marseille) and Lilian Thuram (from Fontainebleau, near Paris) grew up there, as did the French stars of today. Kylian Mbappe and Paul Pogba (from the Parisian suburbs of Bondy and Lagny-sur-Marne, respectively). The combination of two factors explains the emergence of so many successful players from these communities: relatively large government investments in sports infrastructure and coaches, and the conditions of poverty and exclusion that drive many young people to consider sport as their only chance for social mobility in French. society.
Boufal started playing in a local team at the age of six, and progressed through the system and in the academy run by the professional team of Angers as a teenager. These academies provide support and training to students when they graduate from high school, and in return, players give professional teams the right to sign them to a professional contract later on. Boufal was signed in 2013 and has played for Angers, as well as other teams in France and England, since then.
Because Boufal has dual French and Moroccan nationality, he also had a choice to make when it came to international competitions: would he try to play for France, the country where he was born and raised, or for Morocco, where is his family from? He was scouted at a young age for the Moroccan team and finally decided in 2016 to commit to playing for the country. The following years were difficult for him professionally and he was not chosen to play for Morocco in the 2018 World Cup. finals.
Morocco beat Portugal on Saturday thanks to a Youssuf En-Nesyri header from an incredible arcing pass by Yahia Attiyat Allah, both born and bred in Morocco. The scenes of delighted, if slightly incredulous, fans and players celebrating after the game showed pure joy. But the image that stands out the most for its gentleness and humanity is that of Boufal. His mother, Zoubida, came to join him, and they danced, gazing into each other’s eyes in wonder as they moved around the field. It was a moment of such intimacy and love that it quickly spread as one of the defining images of the tournament.
Morocco’s victories were historical at several levels. This Moroccan team is the first from Africa to qualify for the semi-finals of the World Cup. At the start of their match against Portugal, a quarter-final elimination loomed as a likely outcome.
Some purveyors of satisfying football narratives had put forward the idea of an Argentina-Portugal (and, more importantly, a Lionel Messi-Cristiano Ronaldo) final to such an extent that the hypothetical lineup sometimes took on an aura of commercial necessity. Of course, many obstacles prevented this scenario from happening, including the fact that Portugal would have had to defeat defending champions France. But if you hadn’t watched the Moroccan team closely, you might have assumed that the game would go the other way. The footage of a tearful Ronaldo walking to the locker room after the game, leaving what is almost certainly his last World Cup, was a stunning and unexpected diversion in the tournament’s trajectory. Now Messi has sealed his place in the final, and the only question that remains is whether Argentina will face France or Morocco.
The Moroccan team’s World Cup victories against Spain and Portugal have been celebrated around the world and have also fueled the imagination of football fans who are also history buffs. Al Andalus– the catch-all tag for various medieval Islamic states in what is now Spain and Portugal – was freely conjured up, and some suggested the winner should go to keep the Alhambra. A historic ability Tweeter makes this connection: “Morocco, 732 – Morocco, 2022: We have conquered the Iberian Peninsula and are ready to fight France.
But it is more recent history that gives a special charge to the France-Morocco match. From 1830, when France invaded and began to colonize Algeria, the country played an increasingly powerful role in Morocco, which became a French protectorate in 1912. Morocco gained independence from France in 1956, but the two countries remain deeply interconnected through both a shared colonial past and contemporary migration. The game between the two teams could be the ultimate post-colonial World Cup derby.
When the two nations face off, most players on the pitch will carry stories of migration. There has been a consistent pattern of Moroccan migration to Europe, particularly Belgium, France and Spain, over the past decades, and the team reflects that. Boufal is just one of 14 Moroccan players who grew up in the diaspora. Defender Roman Saïss was also born and raised in France; four other team members grew up in Belgium, and some have played in the country’s national youth teams alongside players they defeated earlier in this tournament. Moroccan star goalkeeper Yassine Bounou was born in Montreal (although he grew up in Morocco), and Hakim Ziyech was born in the Netherlands and grew up in that country’s famous academy system.
French players are also mostly from immigrant families. Many could have chosen to play for a parent’s homeland but opted for France instead. Aurélien Tchouaméni, whose superb strike pitted the team against England in the quarter-finals, grew up in Bordeaux as the child of a Cameroonian pharmacist and teacher. Kylian Mbappé’s mother is Algerian and his father is Cameroonian. Theo Hernández (who replaced his brother Lucas after suffering an injury in the tournament’s opener) is of Spanish descent. And for decades, the France team has been alternately celebrated and reviled for representing a multi-ethnic France.
Previous matches between France and Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia have sometimes become hot spots. In 2001, a France-Algeria match advertised as an opportunity for post-colonial reconciliation ended prematurely due to an invasion of the pitch by supporters of the Algerian team. Far-right anti-immigration politician Jean-Marie Le Pen – who had long attacked the France team as not being representative of the country because it had so many players with an immigrant background – took advantage of the event and announced his 2002 bid for the presidency outside the stadium soon after. The pitch invasion, he claimed, made it clear that many immigrants disrespected France.
Last Saturday evening, after the respective victories of France and Morocco, there were celebrations in the streets of Paris and elsewhere throughout France. These celebrations were for the victories of both teams; people didn’t have to choose between the two. But now they will.
The only comparable World Cup match to date was a France-Senegal game in 2002, which Senegal famously won, but it was their first game in a group stage. This time the stakes are much higher and the potential for fan conflict seems greater. But to some extent, whichever team wins the game, the French nation and the African continent will be able to claim part of the victory.
The France-Morocco game brings together many spirals of personal and national stories. Members of each team have made different choices about which nation they represent on the world stage. But collectively, they condense stories of movement and diaspora.
At a time when Europe is obsessed with controlling and stopping migration from Africa with an intense regime of maritime control in the Mediterranean, the alternative offered by the unhindered and joyful movement of players on the pitch is valuable. The game offers us a different way of seeing movement: not as a danger, but as a possibility and a freedom that makes something beautiful in the world.