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Morocco’s World Cup team represents a new era of soccer nationalism

Morocco celebrates after advancing to the World Cup’s quarterfinal round for the first time. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

For most of the time that we’ve heard of it, soccer’s World Cup has been, in name and reality, a misnomer. It wasn’t about the world, per se. It was about Europe — and its colonialization of the world.

Italy. France. Spain. Portugal. England, of course. And all the colonies and places to which Europe exported the game, not in some noble effort but to impose European aesthetics and sensibilities. In South American countries including, most notably, Brazil and Argentina. Asian nations Japan and Korea. African footholds south of the Sahara in West Africa. And countries north of the Sahara, such as Morocco, which on Tuesday in Qatar dispatched its last European colonizer, Spain, and advanced to the quarterfinals — only the sixth team from outside Europe or South America to do so in the tournament’s history.

And Morocco, the Atlas Lions, did so off the boot of Achraf Hakimi — born to Moroccan parents in Spain and reared in Spain, who historically would have been expected to play for Spain — on a third penalty kick after a scoreless draw. Spain missed all of its tries.

With a roaring World Cup moment, Morocco rolls to the quarterfinals

Morocco freed itself from Spanish rule in 1956 after 44 years. On Tuesday, it represented a new liberation movement in global sport.

For as Michael Murphy, a Queen’s University political scientist reminded in a recent paper on soccer in Africa, the game was “introduced into the African colonies by the Western capitalist colonial powers in an effort to make manageable the populations of the newly conquered territories. To make manageable the populations meant to introduce soccer ‘with the purpose of satisfying colonial ideas of and needs for order and discipline among the dominated population.’ ”

There remained plenty of remnants of European settler colonialism in this World Cup, Morocco’s breakthrough notwithstanding. The tournament continued to spotlight European soccer’s harvesting of the best talent from beyond its shores to feed its rapacious appetite for the game within its borders. You were hard-pressed to spy a European side without a progeny of an African country it once occupied. I couldn’t help but feel the pain for Breel Embolo when he gestured in apology after scoring for Switzerland against his birth country Cameroon.

“Therein lies the rub,” emailed Grant Farred, a Cornell professor of Africana Studies and English who has penned his love of soccer: “The ghosts of globalization, of forced migration, the refugee, the aspirant postcolonial type seeking greener, that is, European, pastures, whose sons are now wearing the colors of what was once an imperial flag. The contradictions abound.

“Why is it,” Farred asked, “that the Cameroonian lays to waste Cameroon?”

After all, it is rare that a European pummels his European birthplace, though it has happened. The great German striker Miroslav Klose was born in Poland.

But if ever a World Cup hinted that the tide was turning a bit, that the playing pitch was being evened, it is this one. And how apropos, given it is being allowed to grace the Middle East for the first time. After being in Africa for the first time in 2010, in a liberated South Africa. After being in Asia for the first time in 2002, in Japan and South Korea.

The World Cup, indeed, should play upon the world stage and not just one continent or two. And it should be a celebration of the world’s athletes, not just those in Europe. This World Cup got closer to that ideal.

If you think Morocco’s fans emoted, you should’ve seen the news conference

To be sure, when this World Cup entered its knockout round of 16 on Saturday, all six populated continents were represented for the first time. That included two teams from Africa — Senegal and Morocco — and two teams from Asia, Japan and South Korea, where British sailors are thought to have planted the game in the late 19th century.

Australia also advanced to the round of 16. Only five teams from outside of Europe and South America made the quarterfinals before Morocco. And no team from outside Europe or South America has played in a World Cup final. Last weekend kicked off the best chance for that breakthrough to be made, which made this World Cup the most diverse and inclusive of all.

There is no doubt that the rest of the world’s rising success in the world’s most popular sport is due to more of that talent long gathered by Europe from points beyond its border playing now for its birthplace, or origin, rather than for a European colonist from which that birthplace may have liberated itself, often in brutal struggles. For example, Ghana’s Thomas Partey is said to have a Spanish passport but has continued to represent his birth country, the first African nation to free itself from British rule, in the World Cup. And more frequently now, foreign-born players of African descent, such as Spanish-born Inaki Williams, are choosing to play for their ancestral homes. Williams dressed for Ghana, too.

Williams is one of more than 130 players in this World Cup playing for a country other than that of their birth. Most of those suited up for one of the African continent’s five teams.

For many, it seems like a newfound sense of nationalism. Williams’s mother, as he has told the story, was pregnant with him when she fled Ghana, crossing the Sahara barefoot all the way to Spain. His younger brother Nico, however, who was born in Pamplona, starred for the Spanish side that Morocco’s Spanish-born players helped eliminate Tuesday.

In soccer, the chickens are finally coming home to roost.

World Cup in Qatar

World champions: Argentina has won the World Cup, defeating France in penalty kicks in a thrilling final in Lusail, Qatar, for its first world championship since 1986. Argentina was led by global soccer star Lionel Messi in what is expected to be his final World Cup appearance. France was bidding to become the first repeat champion since Brazil won consecutive trophies in 1958 and 1962.

Today’s WorldView: In the minds of many critics, especially in the West, Qatar’s World Cup will always be a tournament shrouded in controversy. But Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, wants people to take another view.

Perspective: “America is not a men’s soccer laughingstock right now. It’s onto something, and it’s more attuned to what’s working for the rest of the world rather than stubbornly forcing an American sports culture — without the benefit of best-of-the-best talent — into international competition.” Read Jerry Brewer on the U.S. men’s national team’s future.