In a few days the year 2022 will become a subject of retrospection, and when its defining moments are documented, the Middle East would have significant mention as the host of FIFA’s biggest sporting event, and being its maiden edition in the region, history would have been made. In Qatar, an Arab nation with a population of 2.7million people, less than the combined population of Alimosho and Ajeromi-Ifelodun LGAs in Lagos, Nigeria the world has seen pragmatic leadership in sports management vividly demonstrated in a sporting spectacle. The speed with which the stadiums where the world cup matches are being played emerged from sheer emptiness, is demonstrative of the developmental trajectory of an oasis in the desert.
Out of the eight stadiums hosting the world in Qatar, seven were newly built. Indeed, in Qatar the world has seen FIFA’s most expensive football competition. According to the Forbes, Qatar 2022 is a 220billion dollar investment, with the country spending more than any other World Cup host country ever by hundreds of billions of dollars. Until now, the most expensive was Brazil’s 2014 tournament, which cost just 15 billion dollars. For Qatar, the World Cup is a multipronged growth and development package; a New Deal of some sort. President Dwight Eisenhower would marvel in his grave at the sight of a reincarnation of his administration’s Economic Stimulus Package. Although, the global and national contexts may differ, the underlying principles and aspirations of Qatar 2022 and Eseinhower’s economic agenda of the 1930s are not markedly different. The lesson is that national development, whether in a time of prosperity or adversity, requires massive injection of significant amount of capital in infrastructural renewal. Qatar may have smartly used the World Cup to soundly navigate her way through a global recession orchestrated by COVID-19 and the Russia-Ukraine war.
Beyond the economies of the sporting event and organizational dexterity of the host nation which has been loudly affirmed by FIFA and football enthusiasts from around the world, who have converged on the Arabian Peninsula to enjoy the luxury of the desert, the 2022 World Cup is as much dramatic as it is record-breaking. It is a tournament of twists and surprises, of upending balance of sporting powers, the end of an era for many icons of the game, and the emergence of new superstars. Between Yassine Bounou of Morocco and Dominik Livakovic of Croatia, the World Cup already has the Goalkeeper of the tournament. C Ronaldo may have played his last World Cup, albeit not many would have predicted the resilience and eventual triumph of Morocco over Portugal in the quarter finals of the sporting event. Morocco’s defeat of Portugal has cemented Ronaldo’s place as one of the greatest names in world football not to have won FIFA World Cup. But that does not give the full ramification of Morocco’s accomplishment. In the build-up to the Quarter finals, Morocco had conquered some of football’s heavyweights. Belgium, ranked second in the world by FIFA, and Spain, ranked seventh, had succumbed to Morocco’s disciplined approach to games. If Argentina and Leo Messi win the World Cup in Qatar, the rivalry over who the real GOAT is may have been finally laid to rest. And not many would have predicted a Saudi win over Argentina. But that is the story of Qatar 2022- twists, drama, excitements, and heartbreaks.
Off the pitch, the World Cup in Qatar, like the last edition in Russia, is a political vista. Generally, sporting competitions are diplomatic games, and are a veritable weapon of statecraft. Whereas the build-up to Russia 2018 was greeted by protests and threats of boycotts because of Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea and Putin’s support for pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, Qatar 2022 reinforces the contentious and sensitive issue of identity; the politicization of the plurality of Morocco’s ethnic composition and the ensuing debate around the country’s Africanness, and the build-up to the sporting event was a spectacle of some political maneuverings. Indeed, Qatar 2022 has been inescapably political, both overtly and discreetly. From commentators and sports journalists to players, coaches and fans across the world, to political leaders and international organizations, the question of Morocco’s Africanity has almost dwarfed her exploits on the pitch. Is Morocco an Arab nation? Is the fact of geography enough validation of Morocco’s Africanness? If Morocco had failed to qualify for the second round of the competition much like Tunisia, would the question of her Africanness have been topical? At the heart of this discussion is a lack of understanding or deliberate politicization of the history of a country at the intersection of world’s major civilizations and whose ethnic and social identity is enmeshed in a plurality of some sort- a condition complicit in the continuing debate as to the exact place and identity of not only Morocco, but several North African countries.
In my ‘Middle East in the 20th century’ class, I started by asking a question that border on identity: Is there a Middle East? And the response from my students was in the affirmative. They all agreed to the reality of a Middle East. I then gave another poser. If we all agreed to the existence of a Middle East, shouldn’t that be a pointer to the existence of other forms of ‘east’? It was convenient for the British, in unpacking the Orient, to resort to framings such as Near East, Middle East and the Far East. The point here is that, the concept of the ‘Middle East’, where Qatar-host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup-is located, is a British creation, and should be considered as one of the many legacies of colonial subjugation of the vast territories which emerged from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire and the devastation of the first World War. But several scholars would rather see the Middle East as comprising a huge portion of North Africa; hence the concept of MENA- Middle East and North Africa- which comes as a necessary political construct in articulating the shared history and culture of a people divided by colonial territorial creations yet share a great sense of Arab nationalism. The expansionist drive of the Arabs had taken them to the Maghreb where they entrenched the rulership of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates before the arrival of the Ottoman Turks. It is therefore not surprising that Morocco is considered an Arab country. The Arabization of the country following the invasion and conquest of the Berbers by the Arabs from the 7th century and eventual entrenchment of Islamic doctrines and culture in North Africa had created a racial conundrum which is still much pervasive today. This singular development provided the context for the flourishing Morocco’s Arab population which currently stand at 44% (excluding the Arabized Berbers). And when Morocco defeated Portugal last week, there were celebrations not only in Moroccan cities of Casablanca, Rabat and Marrakesh, but also across major cities in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula. There were celebrations too in European cities with sizeable Arab and muslim population-Paris, London and Madrid. And above all, there were joyous celebrations in other African cities, from Accra, Abuja, Abidjan, to Luanda and among Africans in the diaspora. From the AU to the Arab League, to several other regional and international organizations across the world, Morocco’s exploits in Qatar have seen outpourings of joy and goodwill messages. While such goodwill messages have the prospect of renewed Arab nationalism, they project underlying politics of identity. In Algeria, which severed diplomatic ties with Morocco in August 2021, there is strong support for the Moroccan team. For decades, relations between Rabat and Algiers have been fraught with tensions over the latter’s support for the Polisario Front. Morocco’s annihilation of the Iberian Peninsula-where Portugal and Spain belong- has renewed Arab nationalism, bringing the Arab people together with a great sense of pride. In a way, it has signaled to the West the arrival of the Arab world, which has suffered cultural and political humiliations for centuries in the hands of the western countries.
But beyond all of that, is the issue of Africanity which the World Cup has highlighted. When France won the last World Cup in Russia, because of the majority black population of the French team, not only did the black race support the French team, the black people across the world considered the French triumph as victory for Africa. It is therefore not surprising that the Arab nation sees Morocco’s exploit in Qatar as an Arab accomplishment. Even Moroccan players have nimbly reinforced such spirit of Arab nationalism and fulfilment by chanting Arab songs and by flying Palestinian flags after their matches. But Morocco’s exploit in Qatar has yet again renewed the old debate about Africanity, and particularly the contentious issue of Africanness of North Africa.
Quite frankly, the idea of who is an African has not really been settled with finality, and all of the hullabaloo about Morocco’s racial conundrum further confirm the difficulty of defining who an African is. Not even the fact of geography or territoriality- a condition which places Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, among other North African countries with significant Arab population in Africa- is enough validation of their Africanity. This racial conundrum was feasibly evident in Sofiane Boufal and Walid Regragu’s responses in an interview session with an international media outlet after the match against Portugal. While Boufal, the Moroccan winger, had dedicated the country’s triumph to the Arab world, his coach, Regragu took a pan-African stand. In his appreciation remarks, Boufal joyfully noted: “Thanks to all Moroccans all over the world for their support, to all Arab people, and to all Muslim people”. On the contrary, Regragu noted: “I’m not here to be a politician, we represent Morocco and obviously Morocco and Moroccans are my priority. But obviously, we are also African like Senegal, Ghana, Cameroon and Tunisia, so we hope to fly the flag of African football high”.
If Moroccans are not African enough, can the white minorities in places like South Africa, Kenya and Zambia define the sense of Africanness? There are sizeable numbers of Indians in East Africa. Like the Arabs who migrated to North Africa, there are Indians in Kenya and Tanzania whose forebearers had been moved from British India in the 19th century to East Africa as indentured labourers, to work on the railway infrastructure been built by the British. They went on to develop permanent settlements along the East African coast, integrated, and married the locals. There is also a sizeable Jews population in Algeria, Morocco and Ethiopia. How much of Africanity do they project? Are they African enough? Are Somalians and Sudanese as much Africans as Togolese and Senegalese? These questions speak to the influence of the continent’s geography on its socio-cultural makeup. Indeed, as Prof Ali Mazrui observed, “African geography is the mother of its history”, and these series of geography-propelled migrations have shaped Africa’s present as much as its past.
The difficulty in articulating and framing an African identity or defining Africanity has really endured. The fact of the continent being a melting pot of several great civilizations, a socio-cultural thread anchored on what Ali Mazrui would describe as “triple heritage” has long been well espoused, and should readily be her strength, and indeed it is, at least culturally. However, it has continued to raise questions and ignite debates. And one of such debates is highlighted in Morocco’s exploit so far in the Arabian Peninsula. If the socio-cultural and political headline of the competition has achieved anything positive, it is a reminder of our rich African heritage and the compelling need for a continuous interrogation of this and several other issues that border on our collective aspirations and shared values as Africans.
Morocco is flying the flag of Africa in Qatar, and Africans across the world are energetically and enthusiastically supporting the North African country. This renewed sense of African brotherhood is pivotal in promoting the values and ideals of the African Union. Africans in other parts of Africa now see Morocco as more African than Arab. Sports indeed is a unifier! It is hoped that this cultural goodwill translates into meaningful political gains in the continent. Morocco is an African country with a strong Arab population. The country’s historical experience should not blur her geographical and political reality. The shared history of humanity is the story of migration and its attendant diversity. And if any sporting event visibly demonstrate the beauty of diversity in humanity, it is the FIFA World Cup. As the Atlas Lions of Morocco continue to roar in Qatar, African leaders should seize the opportunity of this cultural and sporting renaissance and the renewed spirit of solidarity that comes with it, to further propagate the gospel of Africanness, African oneness, despite diverse historical and cultural experiences. In the meantime, let’s enjoy football, sporting diversity, and humanity.
Dr. Balogun is a lecturer in the Department of History & International Studies, Lagos State University, Ojo, Lagos, Nigeria