How Morocco’s surprise World Cup run rallied a legion of Arab fans

DOHA, Qatar — When Morocco takes the field Saturday for the World Cup’s quarter final, the team will have not just an entire nation behind them, but a legion of fans throughout the Arab world.

The underdog Atlas Lions, as the team is known, has enjoyed surprising success and become emblematic of this year’s tournament, the first to be held in an Arab or Muslim-majority country. 

Raucous supporters from nearby countries have packed stadiums and fan parks in Qatar to cheer, dance and sing as first Saudi Arabia and then Tunisia and Morocco upset higher-ranked teams.

Qatar Morocco vs Spain Penalty Shootout
Moroccan players celebrate after wiing a penalty shootout against Spain at the Education City Stadium in Al-Rayyan, Qatar on Tuesday.Javier Soriano / AFP – Getty Images

Morocco is now the last of those left standing and is hoping to beat star-studded Portugal at 10 a.m. ET Saturday to become the first African nation to ever make the semifinals of the men’s soccer tournament. 

They knocked out favorite Spain on penalty kicks earlier in the week, an emotional victory that sparked jubilant celebrations from fans at home in Morocco, in Qatar and on the streets of cities across Europe. 

For many, the chance to rally behind Morocco offers an opportunity to display regional unity and bring more visibility to some of its causes.

Borhen Bibo, from fellow north African country Tunisia, will be watching and rooting for Morocco.

“We are supporting all the Arabian teams,” he said to NBC News while having coffee and shisha in the crowded old market Souq Waqif, located in the heart of Doha. “We are cooperating since a long time and do have many things in common, like language, like religion.”

Soccer enthusiasts like Bibo from across the Arab world flooded a FIFA Fan Zone — sites where people can drink alcohol in the mostly dry country and watch the games on big screens — for the match against Spain on Tuesday night. 

They were energized by Morocco’s huge upset, erupting into cheers when young defender Achraf Hakimi impudently converted the decisive penalty. Hakimi, born in the Madrid suburbs to Moroccan parents and eligible to represent either country, is a fitting star for a team that has helped bring an outpouring of pride in Arab identity from fans who may otherwise feel separated by geopolitical tensions or generational divides. 

“It was really awesome to be in the atmosphere. The fans were very noisy and super happy,” Mohammed Al-dubaisi, a Moroccan fan, told NBC News from the Fan Zone that night. “It was very awesome and proud,” he said.

The excitement for Morocco’s progression in the tournament was felt around the world. 

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