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CASABLANCA, Morocco — Ahead of the biggest sporting event conducted upon the third planet from the sun, check out North Africa, all lit up and revved up. There’s Egypt way over there on the right edge, its 97 million anticipating its first World Cup in 28 years, its young adults reveling in their first crack at seeing the mass mesmerization. Slide along the Mediterranean by two lands, and there’s Tunisia, hardy souls as a mere 11 million, gracing its fifth World Cup in the past 11 and its first in 12 years. Move over here to the shores of the North Atlantic, and here . . .
Here, there’s a bubbling in the bloodstreams, a verve in the veins. Along the Corniche by the Atlantic, along the Boulevard Mohammed V with its French-colonial art deco, in the souks and in that most vital harbor of earthly wisdom, the barbershops, a confidence courses through the nearly 34 million strong. It arrives in a double dose with dual prongs.
Morocco not only surged into its first World Cup in 20 years by playing six African group-stage matches while permitting — wait, let’s look it up to make sure — zero goals. It not only has that billboard along the ocean walk, with King Mohammed VI on its left side and a cluster of players on its right, proclaiming in Arabic and in French and in Spanish and in English: “Morocco will be the great surprise of world Russia 2018.”
No, even beyond its group matches Friday (against Iran in St. Petersburg), June 20 (a bout with Portugal in Moscow) and June 25 (vs. Spain in Kaliningrad), it has also a pregnant Wednesday (in Moscow). That’s when it will learn the verdict in its vying against the three-country behemoth — Canada, Mexico and the United States — to stage the 2026 World Cup. That’s when up to 207 eligible voters from FIFA federations will decide whether to opt for a pinch of adventure and present a second World Cup to Africa — and the first to Morocco after fruitless bids for 1994, 1998, 2006 and 2010.
“You don’t bid the fifth time because you like to lose,” Hicham El Amrani, the chief executive of the bid, said in his office in Rabat, the capital about 70 minutes up the coast from Casablanca. “You bid the fifth time because you believe in the power of the World Cup.”
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‘We know how to do this’
Serious power, El Amrani does foresee, for a land of almost 34 million whom he noted all seem capable of managing a soccer club. “The whole nation will be in a kind of ecstatic state for eight years and 32 days” if chosen, he said. “That’s what it means. It will change. The people will be so excited where it’s almost like the productivity of the nation will increase. Eight years of extremely hard work, knowing the whole world will have a spotlight on us, is what we want.”
In Morocco’s case, it would flow beyond “the tangible aspects,” he said, and “beyond just a pride of receiving the best players in the world,” to “allow the pride of being granted the confidence that, yes, we have reached the capacity, the maturity,” 62 years after independence from France.
For the bid branded an underdog recurrently enough that El Amrani spots “a cliche kind of thing” therein, the former secretary general of African football speaks with flowing paragraphs and without bombast. He cites how Morocco’s infrastructure has galloped forward over the past 15 years, how its time zone harmonizes with Europe such that a busy Londoner could fly to a match and fly back on the same day if necessary, how all 12 proposed host cities breathe within a one-hour flight of one another, which should stave off any sapping of the caliber of play. It’s a bid rich in “modular” stadiums primed for recalibrating and repurposing afterward, in visions of high-speed trains and fresh tunnels, in a sprawling mission to aid hospitals.
It also got three marks of “high risk” after a recent FIFA inspection, in areas such as stadium readiness and transport, the North American bid getting 4.0 points (out of 5.0) to Morocco’s 2.7 in the Sanskrit FIFA scoring. (“It takes three years, maximum, to build a stadium,” El Amrani said, with nine of 14 proposed stadiums yet unbuilt. “We know how to do this. We have eight years.”)
All along, El Amrani has lent a novel approach to the ancient concept of the “underdog,” a tack he sustained in the quiet of his office on a tree-lined residential street at the Moroccan soccer federation in late May. He has interest neither in bewailing it, as do many, nor in cuddling up to it, as do many more (especially coaches). He has aimed to travel a lane parallel to it.
“I don’t look at it as an ‘underdog’ candidacy, but as a completely different version of how we want to hold the World Cup,” he said. “It does not strictly rely on how big you are, your stadiums, or how big is your country. It’s not about being an underdog. It’s what we are selling, what we are envisioning.”
That would be “coming back to a more humble World Cup, a more inclusive World Cup, a more responsible World Cup,” he said.
Now and later, ‘it’s our time’
Two hours later, half past noon in the Gallas Coiffeur Hommes et Enfants shop in the Maarif neighborhood in the heart of Casablanca, and the barbers, Abdelghany and Said, had their big, black chairs filled. Said trimmed the beard of a customer who had his flip-flops propped on the wall. Abdelghany rinsed a cloth over on the side. The TV, on which programs vary from sports to news to all else during a day, showed the channel that shows the scenes of worship from Mecca. Friend and client Haj popped in.
“For sure, we will go to the second stage [of the World Cup] and quarterfinals” in Russia, Abdelghany said through an interpreter.
“We expect Morocco will go far because the players have experience,” Said said. “They play at levels they are familiar with” — about two-thirds of them having sprinkled themselves capably all over Europe, from La Liga in Spain to the Bundesliga in Germany.
“It’s our time,” Haj said, except now he referred to a question about the bid. “America has already organized one [in 1994]. It’s our time. Africa, with almost 40 countries, has organized only once [South Africa in 2010] but, logically, it’s our time.” He does pronounce himself “prepared for the other answer, because it’s sports mixing with politics,” he said. “The event will affect everybody,” Said said, looking up from his supine customer. “Economically, socially, it will affect everybody. So that is different from America, Canada or Mexico.”
About 10 minutes of driving and 20 minutes of parking away, up and down the striking Boulevard Mohammed V, anticipation lurked in conversation. At a cart selling mahrash bread for one Moroccan dirham (about 10 cents) apiece, 58-year-old customer Ali Lahyaoui spoke at length and reminded of the many familiar realities in a world with a World Cup.
“It’s a long time, 20 years,” he said of the national team’s return to the event. He spoke of the joy of 1986, when Morocco became the first Arab and African team to reach the round of 16, and of the weirdness of 1998 in France, when Morocco exited suddenly at the end of the group stage because Norway scored twice in the waning minutes to win, 2-1, against Brazil, and in that, he reminded how these histories embed themselves in national memories. (“The Brazilian secret agreement with Norway,” according to Said Bousselham, a vendor in the Old Medina souk.)
For the team, Lahyaoui thinks it gets a boost from enthusiasm: “People are more excited now than in 1986 because the people are convinced that this team is really a cohesive one.” When Lahyaoui extolled Morocco’s French manager, Herve Renard, he reminded how Renard does add a factor, having steered both Zambia and Ivory Coast to African Cup of Nations titles, with the smallish Zambia’s success in 2012 among the international sporting feats of the young century.
And for the bid, he thinks it might have gotten a boost from that old ghoul, American arrogance, in the form of President Trump’s tweet of April 26, which read in part: “It would be a shame if countries that we always support were to lobby against the U.S. bid. Why should we be supporting these countries when they don’t support us (including at the United Nations)?”
“Trump should not have said who doesn’t support the World Cup bid should be cut aid,” Lahyaoui said. “Sport should not be mixed with politics. Because of this, maybe Morocco will win the bid. It may give a countereffect, the statement.”
Back up the boulevard, apparel salesman Salama Abdur-Rahim, who abides the global law that clearly states all vendors must sell Barcelona shirts, said of Morocco’s players, “They care for the national team.” And of Morocco’s bid: “I am confident that we will get the bid. First of all, the infrastructure has improved. There are a lot of people who will invest to take advantage of the opportunity. And because all the people are excited about this event, the whole country.”
In North America, everyone agreed, the response to winning the rights might carry more shrug in it.
There’s no shrugging here. Bousselham, 57, stood in his neatly kept shirt shop and recalled Nov. 11, when the Moroccan team clinched passage to Russia with a 2-0 victory at Ivory Coast. “We went out shouting, screaming, celebrating,” he said. “It was a historical night. We were celebrating until 4 a.m.”
He spoke just as had the man in the spiffy office in the capital, where El Amrani said: “People are counting days for two moments: the 13th and the 15th. It’s like the whole nation’s heartbeat will kind of go faster. So we know that we [actually] have four crazy moments to look forward to: the 13th, the 15th, the 20th and the 25th. It’s a mixture of excitement, of adrenaline pumping.”
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