Seminal African sporting events, from the anti-colonial campaigns of the Algerian FLN football team in the late-1950s to Abebe Bikila’s gold medal performance at the 1960 Rome Olympics to Muhammad Ali’s victory over George Foreman in Zaire in 1974, have been central to histories of African political liberation and cultural reclamation, connecting the continent in important ways. Sporting achievements have also played important roles in pan-African and diasporic projects for post-colonial national development, national and transnational movements for liberation, and individual and familial social mobility.
Morocco is the first African and Arab team to advance to the semi-finals of the World Cup. The team’s victory against Portugal in the quarterfinals of the tournament surfaced strong pan-African and pan-Arab sentiments across the continent and throughout the diaspora. Headlines carried banners proclaiming Morocco as “carrying Africa’s hopes.” Supporters attending the match noted the historic nature of the victory for Morocco and the continent as a whole, with one fan, draped in the Moroccan flag, telling a pool of reporters, “This is history. The first time Africa is qualifying for the semifinal.” Fans, continental leaders, and former soccer stars celebrated the victory as an African and Arab achievement. Likewise, Moroccan head coach Walid Regragui noted the inspiring impact that a unified crowd had on the team, telling reporters, “That energy from the Arab and African crowd pushed us.”
Sentiments such as these are not outliers in the histories of African sport—often a driver of national and regional unity on the continent, linking regions that observers view as disparate and disconnected.
Morocco’s victories and the responses to it both parallel and provide insight into patterns that are transforming the region and continent. In North Africa, the last decade has seen a shift in both national politics and local movements that are increasingly emphasizing a “pivot” to Africa in the form of Amazigh cultural movements and increased attention to the legacies of trans-Saharan slavery and anti-black racism in the region. At the same time, while Morocco’s victory was followed by public shows of support for Palestine (despite Morocco recently normalizing ties with Israel), as William Shoki points out, similar displays championing the cause of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic have been noticeably absent. In the diaspora, as African immigration trends have increased rapidly during the last three decades, soccer migrations have come to reflect larger patterns, with labor relations and family connections playing central roles in African soccer players’ decisions on where to play and which national teams to represent.
As Africans and their descendants reshape the demographics of former colonial metropoles, Western soccer leagues and national teams have been transformed. In addition, African national teams have fielded more and more sides composed of foreign-born players. Indeed, African countries top the list of rosters including foreign-born players in this year’s World Cup, with 42% of the players competing for African sides being born in other countries. While Morocco leads the way, with 14 of the team’s 26 players born abroad, many of the continent’s soccer powers, including Senegal, Nigeria, Tunisia, Cameroon, and Ghana, have increasingly fielded teams composed of foreign-born players. Indeed, the first goal scored for an African side in this year’s World Cup (in the 73rd minute of Ghana’s group-play match against Portugal) was netted by André “Dede” Ayew. Importantly, kinship links and ancestral connections play a central role in these patterns, with all but one of the 55 foreign-born players for African nations qualifying as a result of ancestral links to their competitive countries of choice.
Such a heavy reliance on foreign-born players on the part of African nations demonstrates strong diasporic connections to African ancestral homelands. According to researcher Gijsbert Oonk, African countries are becoming increasingly “aware of the fact that there are many well-qualified soccer players from Morocco, for example, in the Netherlands, France, and Belgium. They are actively going after that to build their national teams. Those teams are built by true ethnic diaspora networks.” As Sean Jacobs has noted recently, African countries are realizing “the power of the diaspora” as a key driver in their international successes in soccer and other sports.
Such trans-continental and transnational relationships fostered through sport have provided Africans with valuable resources to push forward important projects of political liberation, social unification, cultural reclamation, and individual development. Perhaps most importantly, despite stubborn tropes about the continent as fractious and disconnected, shared responses to seminal sporting victories such as Morocco’s historic World Cup run highlight the interconnectedness of tens of millions of Africans from different racial, national, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds across the continent and the diasporas, highlighting the power of collective experiences as a resource to aid in projects aimed at “moving the center” of global structures of power and prestige.