It Turns Out We Were Not All Pan-African During the World Cup



As already mentioned in this issue’s introduction, the 2022 World Cup has mobilized many tangible questions of solidarity practices. In this text, Sophia Azeb reflects both on the necessarily imperfect responses to these questions and on what the ways through which discourses around and from the Moroccan national team have crystallized numerous problems about pan-Africanism, Arabness and Indigeneity, as well as the fight for decolonization everywhere.

Azeb Funambulist 1
In Gaza, a Palestinian audience watches with passion the World Cup semi-final between Morocco and France on December 14, 2022. / Photo by Anas-Mohammed.

I did not boycott the World Cup. I had every opportunity to, but I did not. I decided not to. It was a decision. I craved the ritual, the act, of watching football on a compacted timeline. I woke up or remained awake to watch every match I could. I watched on my computer, I watched on my mobile, I watched on television in public spaces in places I know well and places new to me. Sometimes I would speak to others while I watched, sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes I didn’t want to speak to anyone (English people) or watch in the place where I watched (an Irish pub in lower Manhattan) because I was the only one (besides the Irish barkeepers) cheering for a particular result (Senegal, obviously). I did not boycott the World Cup.

There were many compelling, well documented reasons to boycott the 2022 World Cup. Qatar’s systemic exploitation of the largely South Asian laborers who constructed the massive air-conditioned stadiums in which the tournament would be played, whose deaths were brushed off as a trifle by Qatari officials before, during, and after the tournament, is one reason. This death-making was not a flaw in Qatar’s approach or the design of their preparations for the World Cup; a design which essentially sought to terraform the desert in order to make it hospitable to capital at the cost of the lives and wellbeing of these workers. The untenably overcrowded and under resourced barracks these men were compelled to live in are testament to that. And, if there needed to be an additional reason, it would likely involve the expanded normalization of economic and cultural relations with the state of Israel, which towards the beginning of the tournament took the form of allowing Israeli nationals to fly directly into Qatar for the duration of the Cup. Palestinians, of course, were not parties to this agreement: FIFA’s hosting requirements (and infrastructure for bribery) evidently do not accommodate those whose mobility—or even access to their own football pitches—is routinely and violently impeded by a settler colonial state.

Beyond Qatar, even Morocco, the champions of our hearts, posed serious dilemmas for the justice-minded among us. The Moroccan state is similarly embroiled in a normalization campaign with Israel, all while their national squad routinely held aloft the banner of Palestine, rushed out to the pitch after each match, suggesting a designated flagbearer among the staff was appointed before the tournament had even begun. This is not new, of course, for most football fans who hail from politically unstable parts of the globe will recognize this as a common divergence between the political claims made by authoritarian regimes and the political commitments of their citizens. Morocco’s young, vibrant squad, excelling under the direction of Walid Regragui, should not bear the brunt of responsibility for the betrayals of the leaders of the nation they represent on the pitch. They should not, but in many cases, they did.