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.

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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.

Still, even those commentators and football fans who celebrated (as I did) the Atlas Lions’ celebratory reminders of the Palestinian struggle largely bypassed the ongoing Moroccan occupation of the Western Sahara. The re-Reconquista of “al-Andalus” was jokingly bandied about all during Morocco’s ascent in the tournament, in particular after victories against Portugal and Spain, accompanied by mockups of flags for the great empire, which usually included the Moroccan-occupied territory in its scope. Talk about normalization! The rest of the African Continent was of course carved off in one way or another. Whereas a great many African football fans, who, for decades, have united for the World Cup under the banner of pan-Africanism, were thrilled by Morocco’s advancement, the Arabophone and Arab diasporic declarations of Morocco’s symbolic resonance tended towards strategic essentialisms of a particularly narrow variety. “The first Arab nation…”; “The first Muslim nation…”; “The first North African nation…”.

How quickly such qualifiers suffused the general commentary, fixing deeply racialized boundaries right where they had always been, but didn’t need to be.

This rhetoric is deeply informed by the legacies of local and regional racial logics that preceded those later contributed and expanded upon by invading imperial powers. Supporters from Senegal, Ghana, Cameroon and all others who gathered under the banner of Afriquoi breathed “Tous les Africains, nous sommes fiers” upon every new achievement by team Morocco. Meanwhile, the comment threads and group chats and halal carts and roti shops flourished with “Well, actually…”s from all sides, including among Moroccans themselves. . “The Arabs are not truly Africans but Hamites,” the Afrocentrists remarked, in grim consensus with commentators from all corners of the Continent, particularly but not exclusively in the North, who sought to specify that Morocco is only technically African due to a geographic accident alone. A foundational myth for every essentialist cause: the entire northern swath of the continent (“except Mauritania and Sudan, of course,” they’ll say-without-saying) might as well be an island unto itself, enveloped by the Mediterranean Sea to the north and the Saharan Sea to the south.

Still others sought valiantly to wrest Morocco and the Maghreb away from presumptions of Arab homogeneity and exceptionalism: “Tamazight is also a national language, Darija a common tongue, and bissara is not fūl, astaghfirullah!” Indeed, reserve goalkeeper Munir Mohamedi’s celebratory colors post-match victory over Spain boasted what had already become a familiar site in the stands, for viewers far and wide: the Amazigh flag tied around his waist, a detail which perplexed many non-Maghrebi observers (again, the group chat erupts…). Further off the Continent, in another hemisphere, the fissures of “Arabness” and Africanness manifested in many frequent and glib remarks among the well-educated diaspora contingents, along the lines of “will we be Arabs or Africans to them when we win, lol?” This tired “joke” drives home, again and again, that Black and Indigenous and non-Arab or nominally-Arab North Africans are continuously invisibilized, compelled to declare for one category of identification or the other, even as we, with our constellations of identity positions, flood streaming and satellite networks on the pitch the whole world over. Among African and Arab players on European teams, for instance, this “joke” is a bitter reflection on the paradox of national un-belonging, frequently expressed after a lost match is attributed to their fixed outsiderness. It speaks to the casting of perpetual alterity onto these profoundly public figures who are made “political avatars,” as conceptualized by Nacira Guénif-Souilamas. When such a “joke” is deployed in partial jest, perhaps informed by a keenly related sense of contested belonging, but ultimately perpetuating a failure to account for the excess of interpellations African peoples, in particular, are subject to, it demands more effort. More accountability. We might instead pause to ask ourselves: what are we to do with this web of colonial and capitalist violence?

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Moroccan supporters during the 2018 World Cup. Palestine flags are visible in the audience. / Photo by Marco Iacobucci Epp (June 2018).

That which is not solely an import from the West, as many of our elders (and far too many young-ers) might like to believe, but integrates our own homegrown fictions of singular origins.

This language that flattens and obscures who qualifies to identify with categories such as Arabness, itself a racial invention burdened by the weight of the very histories it absences? We might think closely alongside Išawiyen writer Yacine Kateb’s frustrated assessment of the so-called “Arabization initiatives” exported by Algeria’s neighboring Arab states, such as Egypt, after the 1962 independence: “The ideal of pan-Arabism does not concern me. This [ideology] is what made us fail Africa […]. This is why we, North Africans, have turned our backs to Africa.”

This essay is not a manifesto that calls for a pure and universal anti-colonial solidarity, if such a thing were even possible. It is not. Rather, the trouble with all the attention drawn to the solidarities emboldened throughout this World Cup is that despite all the rhetoric that would suggest otherwise, it seems to have caused quite little trouble overall. Euro-American pundits and viewers alike delighted in hammering Qatar and FIFA’s corrupt collusion and abuses. In response to this, far too many of us who belong to nations neglected and maligned focused too intently on the hypocrisy of the West for critiquing this World Cup, in this nation. The inherited, unnamable provincialisms our particular social-cultural-political tempests imprint on our gaze often evades clear sight. I have encountered too many U.S.-based scholars of these regions who have determined their thin engagements with Frantz Fanon’s anticolonial thought in Algeria adequately obscures their refusal of his phenomenal blackness, which in his own words nurtured the very foundations of his own emancipatory frameworks. I have pleaded with too many dedicated anti-colonial movement builders, who are so exhausted from the trauma of the struggle that it has become too easy to make excuses for should-be allies who had long ago abandoned every principle of abolition, to the point of perpetuating ethnic cleansings while clinging to a façade of Communist internationalism. These are not solidarity commitments: these are costly compromises.

Solidarity is not a zero-sum game. It is multidirectional, it is multilinear, it is messy, it is difficult.

History, as Stuart Hall reminded us, “is open to freedom because it is contingent.” So too are the solidarities our histories of the present prompt: contingents can be at once chanced and deliberate. Are we willing to open ourselves to chance, to change in the interest of our collective liberation?

The exemplar of solidarity, to my mind, is a practice of total commitment: an active process that furthers a liberatory cause, whether or not that specific avenue of liberation has an immediate or extended impact on one’s own conditions of suffering. We will, all of us, get free together: that much is promised. This aspirational ideal is glossed in much of the dialog on the frequent displays of solidarity with Palestine and within the symbolic anti-colonial reverberations of a potential African victory fostered during this tournament. The symbolic resonance of the Atlas Lions’ singular advancement through each stage of the World Cup among “the wretched of the earth” is worthy of admiration. Similarly, the dedication with which the squad and its fans and many thousands of others in tarboushes and keffiyehs held aloft their flags of Palestine in the stadiums of Doha and Al Rayyan, Lusail, and Al Wakrah is no mere hiccup of camaraderie. These displays of solidarity imaginaries (the collective dreaming up and acting out what our solidarities might reap) play their part in sustaining long and enduring struggles towards decolonization.

Additional, imaginative solidarity pathways were also forged far beyond the pitch. Due to Qatar’s expansive visa policy, Africans were able to attend the World Cup in unprecedented numbers, invigorating for players and fans alike, as evidenced by Morocco’s command of what seemed like its entire Qatar-based diaspora. Never before have I thought to celebrate the social possibilities of paperwork! As the World Cup progressed, and on the rare and miserable occasion I was compelled to watch a match aired on a U.S. media network, the absurd lengths the sideline cinematographers contracted by Fox Sports went to in order to avoid capturing a Palestinian flag became increasingly obvious to everyone gathered around a television. While viewing matches, dressed in my replica jersey of the Palestine national football team, I was asked no less than a dozen times if I had seen viral video clips of people who seemed least likely to be allies of Palestine (white Englishmen!), proudly enunciating “Falastin hurrah!” into the microphones of earnest reporters. Borders, visas, propaganda filming, and the nominal English Left: what do any of these anecdotes have to do at all with the political practice of solidarity? I want to ask what possibilities may blossom by seeding the idea that affective displays of solidarity imaginaries are, in fact, performances of our own political being and becomings. Our political configurations shift on such occasions, often expanding in scope and measure and possibility with each performance and production of solidarity imaginaries. We know this from the attendees and fans who reflected on their newfound understandings of Palestine’s significance in the worlds around them during the World Cup. Whether inspired by an initial, vague recognition of the political stance communicated through certain patterns and colors, or a latent familiarity with the Israeli occupation itself, participants from the U.S. and Europe, whether white or non-white, who had been too used to constituting a majority of the fans in the stadiums of international sporting tournaments, realized other ways of belonging to the world, far beyond the political boundaries they may have previously perceived as impermeable.

In a 1991 conversation with bell hooks in Transition magazine, aptly titled “States of Desire,” filmmaker Isaac Julien mused that in the midst of a resurgence of Black cultural nationalism “blackness as a sign is never enough. What does that subject do, how does it act, how does it think politically? […] being black isn’t really good enough for me: I want to know what your cultural politics are.” Any discussion of solidarity in international football must also engage a discussion of blackness and its significations, particularly in light of the way Black and brown footballers are mobilized as political in and of themselves. Attempting to articulate the complexity of building and enacting solidarity from a cultural standpoint is already a contending with blackness and anti-blackness, of race, of racism and anti-racism, of heteropatriarchy and queer feminist liberation, colonization and the anti-colonial struggle, of the world that we have inherited and the end of it, in total decolonization.

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Map of African countries boycotting the 1966 World Cup. / Map by Léopold Lambert (2023).

In this regard, Moroccan football’s awesome performance of solidarity imaginaries in the 2022 World Cup is far from the first or most impactful instance of solidarity with Palestine from the pitch. In 1948, Sudan followed Egypt as the second African national team admitted to FIFA, and subsequently refused to engage in any qualifying matches with the newly formed Israeli national team. In the 1958 World Cup qualifiers, both Ethiopia and Egypt withdrew from the group stages, once again refusing to normalize play with Israel’s national team. Sudan’s sporting community’s commitment to mobilizing their relatively (for the time) advantaged position in international sport continued into 1966, when Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah called for a collective African boycott of that year’s World Cup due to FIFA’s systemic exclusion of newly independent African and Asian nations from the tournament. It’s no wonder 1966 is the only World Cup England has ever secured! Here, the solidarity imaginaries in the cultural realm realized shared and actionable commitments. The footballers of Sudan and Egypt and Ghana understood culture could function as a “site of strategic contestation,” to borrow from Stuart Hall. Decolonization it is not, but a canvas for continued struggle it has indeed been.

There is our conundrum again. It is clear that Moroccan players and Moroccan fans are no more responsible for the Moroccan’s kingdom’s recent normalization of relations with the Israeli state than they would be for, say, Puma’s sponsorship of Morocco’s national team (along with those of Ghana, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, and Egypt). In fact, in the lead up to this World Cup, BDS Morocco and Qatari Youth Against Normalization both made social media pushes to discourage eager fans from purchasing the team’s jersey from the sportswear manufacturer, which sponsors the Israeli Football Association, including clubs operating in Israeli settlements built atop occupied Palestinian land. But while the nuanced political terrain of Moroccan and Qatari sporting in relation to Palestine was a frequent topic of discussion among supporters of Palestine, the struggles closer to home in both nations (and broader regions) were comparatively far less attended to. How can this be? Where is our canvas now?

What forms might solidarity take, what pathways might its practice follow, as we consider this tournament from the perspective of its completion? We might examine the configuration of the Moroccan national team, which imagined something like solidarity out of the instability of their configuration. While foreign-born players opting to play for a familial homeland is hardly unheard of in the arena of international sport, a team of 26 boasting 14 members born abroad stands out. The unevenness of the diaspora identities that drew the team together was bound to hit some roadblocks, and for Morocco it certainly did. For instance, an interview with Sofiane Boufal from a CAF match in early 2022 went viral during the World Cup, likely recirculated in the midst of similarly awkward translational hiccups involving Hakim Ziyech, Sofyan Amrabat, Walid Regragui, and rolling cameras. The interviewer, leveling a lengthy question at Boufal in standard Arabic, pauses for an answer. Boufal chuckles uncomfortably, responding, “En français s’il te plait.” While the moment was captured and uploaded soon after it happened, once the video began to recirculate this past December, the Arabic-speaking commentariat ignited. “Such a disgrace!” they said, “he cannot speak his mother tongue, while representing us [Morocco/North Africa/the “Arabs”] no less!” But of course, why should Boufal, born in Paris, raised by Amazigh parents, trained in Angers and having made his name first with Lille, speak modern standard Arabic, or any other Arabic, at all? In such translational breaks the immense work of solidarity is frustratingly clear.

We are not all speaking the same language. We may not even know what the vast terrain of language entails, or makes possible.

These “Arabs” who are Amazigh, who are African, who are born and raised in France, Canada, the Netherlands, Spain; they are tasked with cultivating a vernacular repertoire that traverses the “ruptural breaks” of diaspora. Such infuriating, humbling moments of missed translations echoes Stuart Hall’s assessment that “in diaspora, identities become multiple.” Certainly, this team, as many before them—the French national team most particularly—is deliberately constituted as much by the differences they must continuously account for as they are by the connections that unites them. These missed translations reveal the ruptures of language from which the necessity of crafting other forms of recognition arises, and the resultant impulse to imagine solidarities as multiple and multidirectional manifests. In another interview, following Morocco’s penalties victory over Spain on December 6, Boufal went viral once more, this time for dedicating the win to “all Moroccan, Arab, and Muslim peoples of the world”: Africa was left out again. But is that a surprise, given that the ubiquity of the “Arabization” campaigns mentioned previously also extended to Morocco? ? Morocco’s experience of post-independence “Arabization” initiatives was not nearly as violent as that which occurred in, say, Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, but the palimpsest of colonial invasions, occupations, and liberations (those endured and those committed) is the canvas that survived and is at hand. These processes of cultural colonization were dubbed analphabétisation (illiteracy) by those who endured it for good reason.

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South African supporters in Soweto, watching the first match of the 2010 World Cup hosted by South Africa. / Photo by Marcello Casal Jr// ABr (June 2010).

Our liberation is bound together, we will free ourselves, together, but first we must closely examine this canvas, study its faint, remaining traces, in order to know one another and our differences better.

I did not boycott this World Cup, a decision I made from my own desire to participate in something new and familiar after perhaps the most solitary few years of my life. The sociality of watching a match, of standing round the pub and cheering, swearing, heckling, and debating; of recognizing the same faces day after day, of being recognized… I did not boycott the World Cup. I too find myself shadowed by the veil of missed translations, in a different sort of desirous state. Solidarity is not inevitable. It is a deliberate phenomenon of multidirectional commitment, cultivated in these contexts with certain imaginative acts, enriched and shaped affectively and through expressive practices and performances that transform a collective sensibility. It is a sensibility that grows with us, from which blooms a language for those distinctions that would animate our solidarity imaginaries and itself. ■