‘God preserve this score!’ Palestinians revel in Morocco’s World Cup backing

Bethan McKernan

The Observer  /  December 10, 2022

Occupied territories hail success of Arab team, whose players unfurl flag of Palestine after victories

The stands at Al-Thumama Stadium in Doha may have been half empty when the World Cup quarter final between Morocco and Portugal began, but the bars, cafes and streets of Ramallah were already packed.

At a restaurant in the city centre, Palestinians from all walks of life gathered to watch the first Arab team to ever make it to the last stages of the tournament. Over fruit juice, beer and shisha the atmosphere got steadily rowdier as Portugal struggled. Morocco scored just before half-time and the crowd erupted, men cheering and women ululating.

Professional Arab commentators didn’t even pretend to be objective. “May God preserve this score!” one Palestinian radio host said. A beIN Sports journalist called one Morocco near-miss a “war crime”.

After an already terrific run in which the north African nation reached the quarter finals, the Atlas Lions reached new heights on Saturday by defeating another of Europe’s best teams.

In a tournament full of surprising underdog wins, Morocco have just delivered one of the biggest upsets yet. Their journey to the semi-finals is not just viewed as a national victory, but one for Africa and the entire Arab world, and in particular a boon for Palestinians. As after other matches, instead of posing for photographs with their own red flag with a five-pointed green star, the Atlas Lions unfurled a Palestinian flag, using their time on the world stage to highlight the Palestinian cause.

In Ramallah’s Arafat Square, thousands of people danced or handed out sweets when the final whistle blew, while car horns blared and fireworks and celebratory gunfire rattled through the night. The scene was repeated in towns and villages across the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“The whole Arab world is behind them: it’s very exciting. We are especially proud of how they are representing Palestine. We’re not even in the World Cup but it’s almost like we are, there is so much support,” said Saha Amir, a 30-year-old watching with her husband, their baby and a group of friends.

The tournament has proved it is difficult to separate sport from politics, even though FIFA bans banners and flags that are “political, offensive and/or discriminatory in nature.”

Support for Iranian protesters and LGBTQ+ rights has been shut down, and there has been no sign of activism drawing attention to the plight of Morocco-occupied Western Sahara. Yet across Doha, Palestinian flags, banners, armbands and the black-and-white keffiyeh scarf made famous by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat have been ubiquitous. Fans from Qatar, Lebanon, Algeria, Iran and Saudi Arabia have cheered for a team that didn’t even qualify (Palestine is a member of FIFA, even though it still does not have statehood.)

The Moroccan enthusiasm for the Palestinian cause is in some ways surprising: the country, along with the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan, signed a normalization agreement with Israel in 2020 under Trump-brokered deals known as the Abraham Accords.

The declarations ended a decades-old taboo in Middle Eastern diplomacy and were viewed by Palestinians as a betrayal, as the Arab League’s stated position is that there can be no peace with Israel until Palestinian statehood is achieved. In the two years since, Israel has celebrated its tentative new friendships in the region, and many Israeli tourists have enjoyed the novelty of trips to Dubai.

What has become clear to the Israeli establishment and public alike in this World Cup, however, is that while the region’s kings and sheikhs may have decided to break bread with Israel – to boost their economies, buy military hardware and better combat their common foe, Iran – for much of the Arab world, the Palestinian struggle still matters.

“The presence of Palestine was strongly felt in every stadium, the flag of Palestine was waved everywhere,” Ahmad Tibi, an Arab-Israeli member of the Knesset and avid football fan, told +972 Magazine. “After years in which the feeling that the Palestinian issue was less of an issue among the Arabs, the [Arab] people made clear that this issue is the central one for the entire Arab nation.”

Qatar itself does not have formal relations with Israel, but allowed the first-ever direct flights between Tel Aviv and Doha to bring Israeli and Palestinian fans to the country for the duration of the tournament.

Israelis who have travelled to the tiny Gulf state, either as spectators or as reporters, have not been met with open arms. In a first-person piece for daily Yedioth Ahronoth about their time in Doha, Israeli sports journalists Raz Shechnik and Oz Mualem said the experience had been “sobering”.

“I was always a liberal and open centrist, with an overarching desire for peace. I always thought that the problem was with the governments, with the rulers – ours as well. But in Qatar I realized just how much hatred is felt by the average person in the street,” Shechnik wrote. The pair eventually began identifying themselves as Ecuadorian to avoid heated confrontations with Arab supporters.

“We weren’t expecting to be received with a warm embrace,” the pair wrote. “We merely expected to be treated like journalists covering a sporting competition.”

The strong pro-Palestinian narrative in Doha has also swept up fans from the rest of the world.

During a live broadcast, a reporter for the Israeli public broadcaster Kan approached a group of young England fans after their win over Senegal. “Is it coming home?” he asked.

“Of course it is,” one of them replied. Grabbing the microphone, he then added: “But more importantly – free Palestine!”

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian

Quique Kierszenbaum in Ramallah