It was in mid-air on the final leg to Doha that Hassan realised exactly what lay in store. He was travelling from Paris, via Istanbul, with his friends Manal and Zouhair after hours of searching for a ticket to Morocco against Spain finally paid off. “I didn’t understand what I was seeing and hearing,” he says. “There were Egyptians, Jordanians, Iraqis, Yemenis – all of them had left their families and their jobs, just to come and support Morocco.”
Hassan pulls up a video on his phone: almost every passenger is on their feet, chanting his homeland’s name. It was Monday night and, within 24 hours, they would witness history. Morocco had never reached the last eight of a World Cup before; if they defeat Portugal on Saturday they will do what nobody from their continent has ever managed, breaking Africa’s semi-final duck at last.
“Sometimes it feels like Morocco is hosting this tournament,” Hassan says. He is hardly exaggerating. The three are walking along Doha’s Corniche, a few minutes from what has become the supporters’ hub of Souq Waqif. Now three quarters of the teams have gone home, the huge Moroccan and Argentinian contingents have the run of the place. They were prominent all along but there is a subtle difference now. Those draped in the red flag with the five-pointed green star are almost as likely to come from other countries, speak in subtly different dialects and be steeped in variations of the same culture. Morocco carry the hopes of the Arab world and everyone is onboard.
It is a marvel that reflects one of this tournament’s many parallel, sometimes awkwardly jarring dimensions: for fans from countries in the Middle East and north Africa, Qatar 2022 has been a chance for a generally underrepresented football region to be seen and heard. It is a powerful common cause, transcending national boundaries and local antagonisms. Success means something extra. The atmosphere in the Souq and at games has been loud, vivid, colourful, celebratory, but at the same time respectful and gentle.
“We’re all the same country, the same team,” says Aymen, who moved to Qatar five years ago from the Tunisian city Sousse. “I watched Tunisia’s games at the stadium but after they were knocked out the decision was simple: get behind Morocco and see how far they can go,” he says. “Their victory is a victory for every Arab.” Ahmed, who is from south-west Morocco and works in Doha as a waiter, says: “It’s an incredible feeling to see all our countries coming together like this.”
There is a cautious sense in a few quarters that something has changed. Nourredine, who has travelled from Morocco and identifies as Arab and Berber, says he had previously felt his countrymen were looked down by Arabs from the Middle East. He has seen no sign of that in the past three weeks, only kinship, and feels encouraged; it is the same for Fadel, who is from close neighbour Mauritania and has lived in Doha for 12 years. “The passport is nothing to us,” he says. “I feel Arabic, and that’s it: we’re not asking each other where we are from.”
Fadel is with Mohammed, who describes greeting several Moroccan friends who had visited for the Spain game on a round trip lasting less than one day. Hassan and his companions did not have time to tell their employers that they would be unavailable for a chunk of this week after his all-night trawl for tickets had borne fruit; they extended their trip after getting lucky again for the Portugal game. Manal’s brother will join them: he is flying over from Casablanca on one of seven planes that sold out in minutes.
“We are living a dream,” says Hassan, who is still noticeably hoarse three days after Achraf Hakimi’s historic shootout winner. “We had to take a risk but I don’t regret coming here. One day we will be proud to tell our children that we were there in the stadium for Morocco’s first quarter-final. And it’s amazing to have everyone behind us.”
The crowd at Al Thumama Stadium will be, if recent evidence is anything to go by, at least 80% in favour of Morocco. Many others will watch elsewhere in the city: estimates suggest well over 50,000 Moroccans could be in town. There are parallels to 2010, when all of Africa appeared to coalesce around Ghana for their tie with Uruguay. That night a different dream was scuppered by Luis Suárez and a disastrous run of penalties; this time up to 450 million Arabs hope to go one step further. “We have a feeling we can do it,” Manal says. Zouhair agrees, and adds: “If you don’t believe once you’re in a quarter-final, I don’t know when you’re going to believe.”
Will they be tempted to keep their bosses waiting a few more days if the impossible becomes real? Manal and Zouhair shake their heads: the trip of a lifetime will have to end on Sunday, come what may. Hassan cannot quite bring himself to say it. “I might have the possibility, I’ll have to think about it,” he says, a mischievous glint crossing his eyes. There may not be much to consider if Morocco keep flying the regional flag a little longer.