A Moroccan fan celebrating his team’s World Cup run after the loss to France. Fans lit flares producing red smoke in the national color. (Photos/Mark Banchereau)

Joy in Astoria—even as Morocco’s World Cup dream ends

QUEENS — The end of Morocco’s historic World Cup run could be the start of something bigger, fans said in Astoria, where flag-waving crowds have poured into the streets in recent weeks to cheer on the first Arab team to reach the semifinals.

Morocco’s success in Qatar—it was also the first team from Africa to make it so far—unified large segments of a neighborhood marked by immigrant diversity.

The celebrations have highlighted connections forged across North Africa and the Middle East.

“It was beautiful to see all Arabic people united behind our team, to feel like we are part of one large community,” said Fatima Aliate, 27, an insurance agent who is from Morocco. “I hope that this feeling of unity will continue after the World Cup ends.”

Cheering on Morocco at the Rotana Lounge, a hookah bar on Steinway Street in Astoria.

After Morocco was eliminated in its 2-0 loss to France—the European country that had colonized it for more than 40 years—fans posed behind the flags of Middle Eastern and North African nations.

“We had an entire region backing us,” said Ayoub Benzalim, 27, a businessman from Morocco. “To have a Muslim country go to the semifinals of the first World Cup hosted in a Muslim country means a lot to people.”

Amid a sea of green and red Moroccan banners, fans also carried the flag of Palestine and chanted in support of its drive for independence. Moroccan players had waved Palestinian flags after their victories in Qatar, which included upsets of Portugal and Spain—two other European countries with a colonial history in Morocco.

Fans wave the Moroccan, Lebanese and Egyptian flags after the game. One wears a scarf adorned with the green, white and black of Palestine.

“We always represent the people who can’t represent themselves,” says Yousef Idrissi, 21, an entrepreneur from Morocco. “This is what we stand for as Moroccans.”

Contempt for how Arab communities are treated in France, home to 1.5 million people of Moroccan descent, added an edge to fans’ anticipation before the game.

“When you see the racism and the discrimination that Muslim people face in France, with the anti-hijab laws for example, it does add to our rivalry with them” said Idrissi. “But we’re not here for revenge, we’re just here to represent all Africans, Arabs and Muslims.”

The flags of Tunisia, Morocco, Yemen and Palestine were carried into the street after the game.

For others, the game was purely about sports. “It’s just football at the end of the day,” said Hafid Moussaui, 28, a salesman from Morocco. “The only extra motivation the players could get from playing against France is that they are the world champions and that if we beat them, we are very likely to win the trophy.”

Despite being the most attacking team for most of the game, Morocco never recovered after falling behind early when France’s Theo Hernandez scored in the fifth minute. Kolo Muani’s late goal sealed the end to Morocco’s  dream run.

Any tears from fans of Morocco were quickly replaced by cheers.

“It doesn’t matter that they lost, they already made history,” said Wadhah Munshed, 42, a Yemeni living in Astoria. “This team has made all Arab people proud—not just Moroccans.”