Morocco faces France in World Cup match fraught with symbolism

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By Lauren Chadwick
Left: French football fans in Paris | Right: Moroccan fans celebrate in London
Left: French football fans in Paris | Right: Moroccan fans celebrate in London   -   Copyright  Left: Geoffroy Van der Hasselt/AFP | Right: AP Photo/David Cliff

Morocco and France will face off in the World Cup semi-finals on Wednesday night in a match fraught with symbolism.

The first African and Arab team to make it to the tournament's semi-finals, Morocco's Atlas Lions have ceded just one own goal since the beginning of the competition, while France's Les Bleus are back in the final stages of the tournament after their big win four years ago.

Paul Dietschy, a professor of contemporary history at the University of Franche-Comté who has written a book on the political history of the World Cup, said that a win for Morocco would have a double meaning symbolically.

On the one hand, it would mark the "defeat of a former colonial power that established the protectorate," said Dietschy, saying some could see it as "historical revenge".

Much of Morocco was colonised by France until the country gained independence in 1956. The Moroccan diaspora in France is also the largest in Europe, with more than a million Moroccans living in the country, hundreds of thousands of whom are dual citizens, according to a 2015 parliamentary report.

Dietschy says that on the other hand, a victory would have Morocco "enter into the great nations of football, to stop playing in the second division of world football."

Morocco's coach Walid Regragui, who also has French nationality, said after the country's win against Portugal that he had told his players they had to "write history for Africa" but French coach Didier Deschamps said he was focused on the game.

"It must remain a football match, even if there is history and a lot of passion," said Deschamps.

A French-Moroccan football fan in Paris agreed with Deschamps.

"We will see (what happens), let the best win. If France wins, we will be happy it's France. If Morocco wins we will also be happy," said 64-year-old Mostafa, a volunteer with the Association of Moroccans in France.

"It's still just a football game," he said, adding that the association would broadcast the match and had both countries' flags hanging up.

But there are also fears of tension ahead of the match.

The Association of Moroccans in France put out a statement denouncing "racist debates" in the media after receiving a postcard in the mail encouraging France to humiliate and destroy Morocco's team.

"The time should be festive to celebrate the beauty of this sport, but now xenophobic and racist remarks are being expressed with complete impunity, carried by certain media which are supposed to inform and not give voice to racist expressions which preach hatred between peoples," the organisation said in a statement.

AP Photo/Francois Mori
Morocco fans celebrate their team's victory on the Champs-Elysees avenue after the World Cup quarterfinal match between Morocco and PortugalAP Photo/Francois Mori

But authorities in France are also gearing up for possible celebrations or clashes after the match.

France's interior minister Gérald Darmanin said that there were 10,000 police officers mobilised across the country. Police presence is doubled in Paris and its surroundings, and tripled in some other cities due to the semi-final match, he added.

Darmanin said Moroccan and French fans were welcome to celebrate but that the ministry would prepare for it to be done in "good security conditions".

The teams are preparing for a tough match in Qatar -- with France's coach saying he's aware that Moroccan fans can be loud supporters.

"They have a popular fervour which is very important. Good for them. What I can tell you is that it makes a lot of noise, I could hear it. My observers have told me this over and over again. My players have been warned," Deschamps said.

For Morocco, it has already made some history in this tournament.

"Nobody expected that they were going to beat teams like Belgium, like Spain, like Portugal. Because it reverses in a certain way our vision of world football, which is a football dominated by European or South American countries," said Dietschy.

"It reverses our vision of things a bit and maybe it means there's a real globalisation of football," he added.