Editor’s Note: Khaled A. Beydoun (@khaledbeydoun) is a law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit covering the World Cup in Qatar. He is the author of the forthcoming book, The New Crusades: Islamophobia and the Global War on Muslims. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
Those moments unwritten from the pages of history are often simply missing a stage. But for the Moroccan team taking to the field in Qatar to face off against heavily favored Spain on Tuesday, a new kind of stage was being set. The biggest football tournament, the FIFA World Cup, was unfolding in the heart of a Muslim nation. And authors adorned in red jerseys were primed to pen history with their feet instead of their hands.
It was a spiritual scene inside the stadium at Education City, Qatar. Moroccan fans whistled incessantly when Spain took possession of the ball, then erupted with deafening roars when their Atlas Lions reclaimed it. Only the Sea of Gibraltar separates the European powerhouse from the African underdog, but the endless sea of Moroccan red in the stands and waves of prayer emanating from it confirmed this was a new kind of battleground.
A subaltern stage, in Qatar, where mosques with majestic minarets stood tall alongside state-of-the art stadiums, making for a mise en scène the World Cup had never seen before.
Morocco’s run toward the knockout stage with Spain was already an improbable one. Flanked by Hakim Ziyech and Achraf Hakimi, the Atlas Lions played valiantly to win their Group F stage, only conceding one goal during three matches. The road toward Spain intensified with a 2-0 win against Belgium, which closed with the victors praying on the field, many then embracing their hijab-adorning mothers in the stands.
The images went viral. Morocco was no longer a team playing for a nation on the northwest edge of Africa, but one that represented a global faith community. Muslim diasporas in the Americas and Europe – long profiled by many in the West as “terrorists” for performing the very same acts of devotion as the players on the pitch – and a diverse constellation of Muslims, across every continent stigmatized by different faces of Islamophobia, adopted the Moroccan team.
They gravitated toward it by faith, and in response to an Islamophobia that has been fully and fervently global. New crusades spawned by two decades of a so-called War on Terror found a defiant rebuttal upon the unlikely stage of a football field.
Qatar had already made history by becoming the first Muslim-majority nation to host the World Cup. But that was only the introduction – a landmark preface for what Morocco would write inside its stadiums.
“I couldn’t stop praying during the match,” shared Hassan, a 31-year-old Moroccan watching the match from his home in Madrid. We messaged, back and forth, as extra time expired and the stage was set for penalty kicks – he in the heart of Spain and me inside the stadium in Doha, as the eyes of the world descended on the pitch.
We were on opposite ends of the world but connected by the power of technology – and the even more connective power of Muslim identity.
“I just knew that they were going to win,” Hassan told me later. I had that very feeling as my plane descended into Qatar’s capital hours earlier, before rushing frantically toward the stadium to catch the remaining minutes of the second half, donning the very same Moroccan shirt that painted the stadium red and later claimed victory atop the green at its center.
It was, from start to finish, a spiritual experience. Thousands of Moroccan fans waved and whistled, paraded and prayed inside the stadium, joined by billions of Muslim supporters from banlieues in Paris, lounges in Rabat and yes, living rooms in Spain.
I was there to see it, and more importantly, to feel it. Sensing that something bigger than football was at play as time stopped and the two teams prepared for penalty kicks.
Spain stood on their side, with some players slumping while those tapped to take the penalty kicks separated from the team. Morocco, however, crowded together as a unified team – an integrated Muslim monolith of men raised in the Netherlands and Belgium, the slums of Casablanca and the margins of Marrakesh.
Bona fide stars like Ziyech and Hakimi, who play for the biggest European clubs, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain, alongside virtual unknowns yet to make their football names. They prayed together, reciting Al Fatiha, the opening passage from the Qur’an and embodying the Islamic tenet that renders all believers – regardless of their station in life, or how bright their star shined – equal.
What happened next was indescribable. The lines of faith were blurred with football, and the course of the latter followed the inexplicable character of the former. Spain no longer looked like the favorites and Morocco the underdogs. Not on this day, not on that stage. The football gods, singular in Qatar, reversed the odds and the tide of history.
Moroccan goalkeeper Yassine Bounou, or “Bono,” stopped kicks from Spain’s Carlos Soler and Sergio Busquets, supported by a different “Hand of God” as Spain’s Pablo Sarabia’s strike ricocheted off the post.
For Morocco, Ziyech and midfielder Abdelhamid Sabiri landed their shots at goal. The stage was set for Hakimi. The child of a father who worked as a street vendor and mother who toiled as a housekeeper in Spain. The beloved son who rushed into the stands after the Belgium win and kissed the forehead of his mother, then ran into the hearts of Muslims everywhere for embodying the Islamic tenet that “heaven lies at the feet of one’s mother.”
The street-kid raised in Madrid, who in theory could have suited up for the Spanish national team, but instead, chose Morocco.
Hakimi stood with his head bowed. Then raised his eyes forward, toward the goal and in the direction of history. The eyes of Muslims all over the world, old and young, locked in on the Moroccan star.
Some 6,000 kilometers away, on the east side of London, Youssef Mohamed stared wide eyed at the screen. The six-year-old son of Somali immigrants who played for the vaunted Chelsea Football Club Academy saw something different in Hakimi and the Moroccan team. He saw a Muslim footballer defiantly proud of who he was, and for a young boy grappling with matters of identity still unclear to him, saw himself.
Hakimi buried the ball in the back of the net. The stadium then shook in ways that the World Cup had never seen before. The Moroccan team dropped to their knees in prayer, again, in the center of a new football stage where Islam was neither fringe nor marginal, deviant nor dangerous. It was, rather, as native as the call to prayer that filled the night sky and the faith that fueled the dreams of a young Somali footballer – and millions of Muslim children who witnessed the history Morocco made in Qatar.
Things fall apart for Muslims, particularly as the War on Terror has stigmatized their identity and silenced their prayers. The Moroccan team did not defeat Islamophobia, but the World Cup stage, curated by Qatar, enabled a new stanza of resilience, and sublime chapters of resistance where Muslim identity stood tall, proud and victorious in the center of the world stage.
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The great African author Chinua Achebe famously wrote, “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” With Morocco’s Atlas Lions, Muslims were given a new brand of historians, who rose above the betting and Islamophobic odds to win the hearts of Muslims around the world.
This time, the real winners of the World Cup may not go home with a gold trophy.