'Our pride': Morocco keeps Africa's hope alive in World Cup
NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — For many in Africa, Morocco's underdog performance is the best story in the World Cup so far, with the hopes of the continent soaring ahead of the match on Saturday against Portugal.
Across the continent of more than 1.3 billion people, African fans are excited that Morocco has become the fourth team from an African country to ever qualify for the World Cup quarterfinals, and the first in a dozen years.
Morocco's advance also has cast rays of hope for other teams on the continent, with some like South Sudan Football Association president Augustino Maduot Parek saying African teams can be World Cup champions.
“Morocco is our pride,” Maduot told The Associated Press, adding that he believes the team will beat Portugal and become the first African team ever to qualify for the semifinals.
Cameroon (in 1990), Senegal (2002) and Ghana (2010) are the only African teams to have made the quarterfinals of a World Cup. No African team has gone any further.
Many Africans say they will be glued to their screens on Saturday.
The match will attract an unlikely Zimbabwean fan, 34-year-old Marvellous Mutohwo, who lives in the capital, Harare, and hasn’t watched football in years.
Watching World Cup matches played at night in Zimbabwe takes effort and guts for women. Crippling electricity outages mean the only places to watch matches in poor townships such as Mutohwo's home of Mbare are bars that are often packed with male drinkers who view women patrons as sexual objects.
To counter the potential harassment, Mutohwo and her friends plan to bunch together and watch the match as a team.
“It is less risky if we go as a group," she said while plaiting her friend’s hair. "At least I will have something to say when people discuss football, because football is what everyone is talking about these days. There is so much excitement that an African team is making it big in Qatar, I can’t miss it!"
In Somalia, where most people consider themselves Arabs, the enthusiastic support for Morocco has led a young man to abandon his longtime backing of Portugal in the quarterfinals.
Hussein Idow Ali, 23, said he will “support Morocco as an African country and our Arab and Muslim brothers, and I wish for them to bring a World Cup trophy to Rabat, but if they lose, I might return to Portugal, which I don’t wish to happen.”
Abdullahi Hassan Suleyman, a football commentator and journalist based in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, said Morocco’s performance has been unexpected.
“Morocco is a solid team, but nobody expected it could win against Belgium or Spain," he said. He said he believes that the World Cup national teams didn’t have enough time to prepare themselves, so it’s “no surprise” if Morocco pulls off another upset against Portugal, but he puts Morocco's chances at winning the World Cup outright at just 5%.
In Morocco, the euphoria over the team has even swept up foreigners living there.
A student from Gambia, Fattoumata Jarbi, described the atmosphere after Morocco won the match against Spain on Tuesday.
“I had my Moroccan hat with me, I was screaming and jumping in my room when I knew they qualified to the quarterfinals,” Jarbi said.
A Liberian student, Sidiki Sanoe, said the win sent a strong message to the world.
“What we as Africans are trying to accomplish is far beyond just football," he said. “We are trying to tell the world that Africans have talents. We are very talented, we can go for better things and we can achieve.”
Morocco's coach, Walid Regragui, is another source of pride as a local coaching the national team. All Africans teams in the World Cup this year have had local coaches, a departure from the past when most teams had European coaches.
Regragui is the first African coach to ever lead a team to qualify for the World Cup quarterfinals.
In Kenya's capital, Nairobi, Caroline Muthoni said Morocco's win over Spain felt very comforting, citing both the team's performance and its family touch.
“Morocco was the last hope for Africa. And did you see how the team celebrated with their mothers? There’s just something about that country, and now it’s in my bucket list,” she said while scrolling through photos of Achraf Hakimi, who scored Morocco's final goal against Spain, and his mother.
Machol reported from Juba, South Sudan. Associated Press journalists Farai Mutsaka in Harare, Zimbabwe; Omar Faruk in Mogadishu, Somalia; and Hassan Alaoui in Rabat, Morocco, contributed to this report.