BRUSSELS (AP) — As early customers warm themselves up with hot drinks at the Café Tetouan in downtown Brussels, owner Hicham Achrayah buys Morocco’s flags from a street vendor who stopped by on a cold winter morning.
The bar is the local hotspot for Morocco soccer fans in Belgium's capital and he needs to get it ready for Saturday’s match against Portugal at the World Cup in Qatar, where Morocco will try to become the first African team to reach the tournament's semifinals.
As has been the case since the World Cup started, Achrayah expects a full house.
“They are writing a page of history,” Achrayah said of the team that has inspired a sense of pride in Moroccan immigrant communities across Europe.
An estimated 5 million Moroccans live abroad, with the majority in European countries such as France, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy. The national team depends heavily on that diaspora, with 14 of the squad’s 26 players born abroad, the highest proportion for any team at the World Cup.
“They were born abroad, but inside, the blood is Moroccan,” Achrayah’s said, pointing to midfielder Hakim Ziyech, who was born in the Netherlands. "What did he say when he chose Morocco? He said it was a call from his heart.”
Ziyech, who plays for Chelsea in the Premier League, has been in scintillating form at the tournament, forming a tremendous duo on the right flank with Paris Saint-Germain defender Achraf Hakimi, who was born in Spain. Four players in the Morocco squad were born in Belgium.
Morocco's French-born coach Walid Regragui has compared building his roster with making “milkshake,” mixing players with Moroccan heritage from across Europe who also bring to the team some of the cultures and soccer styles of the countries where they grew up.
“People are identifying with us and we are managing to unite Moroccans behind this football team," Regragui said in Doha on Friday. “It is worth more than anything. It is worth more than money, more than titles.”
Still, he said he was not going to let exuberance surrounding the team affect its concentration.
“We can bring hope and positive energy to people, this is fantastic. But we are focused on what we are doing on the pitch,” he said.
Hassan Bousetta, a researcher studying Moroccan migration, says the backgrounds of the foreign-born players in the squad reflect the widespread distribution of Moroccan immigrant communities across Europe.
“Unlike the Turks and Algerians, for instance, the Moroccans are much more spread out over various European countries,” Bousetta said.
He stressed the role played by Moroccan authorities to maintain close ties with those who move abroad.
“They have built a global relationship with their diaspora. And today, we see its impact in soccer,” he said. “All these players were trained by big clubs. The idea is to benefit from the training, on a global scale. Giving great responsibilities to children of the diaspora is something that is not seen in other Arab countries.”
In Qatar, Morocco's European-born players have delivered in a big way for the Atlas Lions to the delight of their huge overseas fan base.
After Morocco defeated Spain in a penalty shootout in the round of 16, legions of fans poured into the streets of European cities to celebrate. In Madrid, some Morocco supporters had mixed feelings.
“If Spain had won, we would be just as happy because we live here. It is our country, too,” said Shalma Boudoir, a 19-year-old student. “We have Spanish nationality, but Morocco has not won a World Cup, so we are very happy, we can’t be happier.”
Highlighting that sense of dual belonging, Belgian flags also decorate the walls of Café Tetouan, where Moroccan immigrants and their descendants have united behind the Atlas Lions’ historic run.
Four years ago, after Morocco exited the World Cup in the group stage, Moroccan fans in Brussels rallied behind Belgium. The Red Devils made it to the semifinals, with the help of Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli, two players with Moroccan roots.
“We have been fervent supporters of Belgium, which we also consider as our country,” said Adil El Malki, a 49-year-old legal expert with dual citizenship. “But to tell you the truth, it is rather the belonging and the sense of identity that prevail. That’s why we support Morocco, but Belgium is in our hearts, too.”
Despite the dual allegiances, riots broke out in several Belgian and Dutch cities as Morocco fans celebrated their 2-0 upset win over Belgium in the group stage. But overall, Morocco’s victory was peacefully and enthusiastically celebrated by fans with Moroccan immigrant roots.
“Let’s hope that on Saturday everything will be calm and that there will be no disturbances," Achrayah said. “And long live Morocco!"
Associated Press writer Graham Dunbar in Doha and video journalist Alicia León in Madrid contributed to this report.
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