Before the euphoria, there was tension. Lots of tension.
In the Education City Stadium, I sat amidst a sea of red and green – all different iterations of Moroccan colors.
The sound was more roars than chants. Morocco’s team is known as the “Atlas Lions”. And the dominant chant was the now famous Moroccan “seer” which translates to “go” or “go ahead”.
You could tell when Spain was on the offensive with all the hissing and jeering. People were literally on the edge of their seats and as the game ended in a penalty shootout, I stood among the Moroccan spectators outside the stadium, huddled in front of a phone and holding their breath.
Then came Achraf Hakimi, the Moroccan star who was born in Spain. It was the decisive kick that issued his team’s ticket to the quarter-finals – the first Arab nation to do so. “We are coming to Portugal,” chanted a group of supporters near a huge replica of the World Cup trophy outside the stadium.
This victory happened in Doha and resonated throughout the Arab world.
Social media images showed Cairo Tower lit up in the colors of the Moroccan flag in the Egyptian capital. In Gaza, thousands of spectators gathered to watch the fierce match on the big screen. In London, the famous street of the Arab diaspora Edgeware Road has turned into an open-air party with car horns honking and the Moroccan flag flying from car windows.
Late at night, as I looked out of my hotel room window, the skyscraper opposite was beaming with the red flag with the green star.
Another that was prominently displayed in this game and many other World Cup games was the Palestinian flag.
And it wasn’t just the spectators, the Moroccan team were pictured with the Palestinian flag as they celebrated their victory over Spain. Many spectators took advantage of the World Cup to express themselves on the Palestinian cause and to make the flag more visible.
Morocco’s qualification for the quarter-finals is much more than football. It is the victory of a team and the pride of an entire region. A cause for much-needed collective joy in the Arab world.
“It’s a night for everyone,” Hakim Chebbaa told me of his team’s victory. He traveled from Dubai and met his brother Adil, who traveled from London, here in Doha.
“It’s a night for Qatar (the host country). It’s a night for the Arab world. It’s a night of happiness,” he added.
“It’s ancient history,” added Adil Chebbaa.
Mohamed Liani, an Algerian fan, told me it was his fourth World Cup and for him it was the most emotional.
“They (Morocco) are our neighbours. We stand by them and we are very proud of them,” he said. “Dima Maghreb! (Morocco forever!)
“When we have a competitor in the tournament, it keeps the excitement going. It keeps people going. It’s a party for everyone.”
One of the chants I heard as I walked out of the stadium was in Arabic and translates to “A Moroccan greeting – an Arabic celebration”. While many spectators across Africa also hailed Morocco – one of the continent’s hottest sides – it looked like an Arab victory.
“You can see it.” said Adil Chebbaa. “From Morocco to the Gulf States, we are united.
“We are not united in politics. But we are united in sport. And that is football.”