France vs Morocco: It isn’t just football, it’s a symbolic event for millions

The unexpected but mouthwatering semifinal involving Morocco is being seen as deeply symbolic in France, which for decades has grappled with the notion of national identity and its colonial past.

There are more than 780,000 people of Moroccan origin in France, according to the French Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies. And a recent visa dispute has made it difficult for relatives in Morocco to visit them.

Currently, the far-right is the biggest single opposition party in the French parliament and its anti-immigration ideas are being echoed by other parties. But Morocco’s team has been hailed as a symbol of immigration and the Moroccan diaspora, as a large number of Morocco’s squad were born or grew up outside Morocco. It includes their coach Walid Regragui who was born and raised near Paris.

Meanwhile, dual French-Moroccan citizens in France say the match should not be reduced to a revenge story of a country that was under French rule from 1912 to 1956. Instead, they see it as a celebration of the many people who have diverse heritage in France.

In fact, the Wednesday’s clash is the first competitive match between the two nations as France, the world champions, and Morocco, the outsider success story, have had only friendlies in the past.    

French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to be among the spectators in the stadium during the semifinal.

Meanwhile, police in France have geared up for after scuffles which followed last week’s Moroccan quarterfinal win over Portugal. Some 10,000 police officers will be mobilised nationwide, of which 5,000 personnel will be posted in the Ile-de-France region around Paris and some 2,200 in the capital, double the security staff than for earlier key World Cup matches, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told France 2.

The reasons are obvious. France signed the Treaty of Fes with Morocco’s Sultan Abdul Hafiz in 1912, officially making Morocco a French protectorate and spending the subsequent years establishing a colony there. During World War I, France conscripted some 40,000 Moroccan soldiers to fight in its colonial army.

But anticolonial resentment against France was growing and gained further ground during World War II – a period that saw many former European colonies achieve independence. In 1944, the newly-formed Istiqlal Party issued a Proclamation of Independence for Morocco.

In 1952, an anti-colonial uprising in Casablanca was violently repressed by French authorities, who subsequently outlawed the Moroccan Communist and Istiqlal parties and exiled Sultan Mohamed V to Madagascar.

This move galvanised resistance to colonial rule further and, eventually, France allowed Mohamed V to return to Morocco. The sultan declared independence on November 18, 1955, and the French protectorate ended in March 1956.

It is this history which makes this World Cup semifinal – a sports event – a geopolitical and cultural affair involving millions of people directly and hundreds of millions more whose forefathers experienced colonialism.

Something to lose

“I believe that both teams have something to lose,” said French captain Hugo Lloris, the man who lifted the World Cup trophy four years ago in Moscow.

“It is a World Cup semi-final, a unique opportunity for both the teams. It’s been a success already for Morocco [coming this far] but they don’t want to stop and be­come greater heroes for their country. As far as we are concerned, we want to put all our focus and concentration into his game so we don’t have any regrets in the end.”

Lloris was answering a question at a press conference as a reporter said whether France, the world champions, had everything to lose but Morocco had nothing.

We will win

But the Moroccans are more direct as their coach Walid Regragui, separately, talked about his side’s ambitions of winning the trophy.

“I hope they [my players] are hungry … if they’re not, that’s a problem,” said Regragui. “Not everyone is lucky to play a semi-final at the World Cup. We have great team spirit and we’re ready to rewrite the record books [again]. I know we aren’t the favorites but we still want to go further.”

Team news

Meanwhile, France centre-back Dayot Upamecano and midfielder Adrien Rabiot are doubtful after both were only able to complete light training on Tuesday.

Upamecano, who has been nursing a sore throat, could be replaced by Ibrahima Konate if not fully fit.

On the other, Walid Cheddira is banned for Morocco after his red card against Portugal.

Head coach Walid Regragui has said he will wait until the “last minute” to assess several injury doubts, refusing to rule any players out.

Their key fitness concerns are Nayef Aguerd, who missed the win against the Portuguese with a thigh injury, and fellow centre-back Romain Saiss, who was forced off in that game with a similar issue.

Full-back Noussair Mazraoui was unavailable for the last match, reportedly through illness and hip pain, but may come back into contention.

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