Belonging is not a sport

The reality of any society, any nation, and of our world, is much messier than picking a soccer team.

Morocco fans at the FIFA World Cup in 2018. Image credit Антон Зайцев via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0.

On the 27th of November, in the group phase of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, Morocco faced off against Belgium in a match in which the latter was clearly the favorite. Morocco won 2-0, but even before the final whistle was blown, my phone vibrated with notifications from my Belgian family’s WhatsApp group. “I don’t know if what the media is saying is correct, but I’m hearing about small riots in Brussels with cars burning down and storefronts being vandalized. How sad!” texted my dad. “It’s true. How deplorable! How much violence in this world!” replied my grandmother.

Morocco’s fate in the tournament contrasted strongly with that of Belgium. Morocco achieved its best result ever in a World Cup, with a historical run to the semifinals (defeated 2-0 by a strong French side), while Belgium was eliminated before making it to the knockout rounds. In many ways, these two teams illustrate the contradictions of nationalism and post-colonialism in global soccer. Belgium, like many European countries, has a team that reflects its history of colonialism and immigration. Morocco is a “diasporic team,” made up mostly of players who were born and trained overseas, but still have connections to Morocco. Fourteen of the twenty-six Moroccan players selected for this World Cup were born outside of the country (mostly in Europe). Their selection was the result of a conscious strategy by the country’s national soccer federation, which has intensified its recruitment since 2014, with a mission to “bring back talents belonging to the soil.”

The reality of the game was thus more complicated than simply Belgium versus Morocco, Devils versus Lions: four players in the Moroccan selection were born and trained in Belgium. Though the current Belgian team has no players of Moroccan descent, recent Belgian soccer stars like Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli are born to Moroccan parents, while Moroccan coaches are currently training the Belgian youth selections. At the same time, the former technical director of the Belgian team, Chris Van Puyvelde, now does the same job, but for the Moroccan national team.

This reveals the two countries’ entangled histories. Moroccan immigration to Belgium is not a straightforward colonial one, but “it is a history forged in violence,” according to Hassina Semah, a sociologist and psychologist, specializing in gender and diversity. Moroccan migration to Belgium started no long after the first soccer stadium was built in Morocco by French colonists in 1907. The stadium was inside a military base and strictly reserved for French personnel. After the French Protectorate in Morocco was officially established in 1912, the French were in need of more people to fill their teams and Moroccan players were allowed to participate. In 1914, as war broke out in Europe, the French not only needed more soccer players, they also needed soldiers to fight their wars: approximately 40,000 Moroccans were forcefully recruited in the French colonial troops. A number of them were brought to Belgium to fight the Germans, and then stayed to work in coal mines after 1918. After the Second World War, Belgium was on the lookout for cheap labor to fuel its coal production and revive its economy. The Marcinelles mining disaster of 1956, in which 136 Italian miners died, deterred southern Europeans from working in Belgium, and the country turned to even more disposable bodies. The Moroccans appeared as an obvious choice: they already spoke French, had mining experience and, in the words of local ambassadors, were more “malleable” than their “turbulent” Algerian neighbors.

In 1964, Belgium signed a Labor Convention with now independent Morocco and by 1974, over 40,000 Moroccans lived in Belgium. Over time, this immigration became more permanent, through family reunion and naturalization policies. Ahmed Medhoune, editor of a book on Moroccan immigration to Belgium, sums it up, “Moroccans contributed their lives, arms and wombs to Belgium,” a contribution largely forgotten in the country’s memory.  Since then, people of Moroccan descent have maintained a steady presence in Belgium. According to the latest population survey conducted in January 2022, 580,000 Moroccans reside in Belgium today,  representing a little over 5% of the total population. (Medhoune says this number is probably an underestimation). As the largest immigrant group in the country, Moroccans have been the focus of debates around multiculturalism and integration. Conservative commentators started speaking of a “Moroccan problem” in the 1980s. “You start having a discourse of fear, this sense of an invading presence or threat,” Semah explains, stressing that Moroccan immigrants also started advocating for their rights around that time, entering the political scene and contributing to passing non-discriminatory laws that persist to this day.

During that time, in the 1980s, soccer was explicitly conceived as a tool of integration for migrants and small soccer pitches were built in local municipalities across the country to foster a sense of collective participation. The historian Laurent Dubois even argues this was a crucial ingredient in the emergence of Belgium’s Golden Generation: “the technical flair gained from the ‘street soccer’ of these migrant communities has enlivened and improved Belgian soccer as a whole.”

With the growth of Islamist extremism in Europe, the global “War on Terror,” and, more recently, the 2016 terrorist attacks in Brussels that killed 32 people, the Moroccan-Belgian community has become even more stigmatized, and soccer is often associated with a discourse on “counter-radicalization,” providing “troubled youth” with structure and purpose. A recent study shows how colonial stereotypes persist for North African immigrants in Belgium, seen as “threatening,” “lazy” and “less civilized.”

This is something Bilal Chuitar, the son of Moroccan immigrants and an educator who runs a youth center in one of the majority-Arab and working-class neighborhoods in central Brussels, hears from some of the young people he works with. “It’s so worrying to hear the image they have of themselves,” he explains. “They tell me ‘with my face, my name, my judicial record, I have no chances here.’ These are kids who were born in Belgium, whose parents were often also born in Belgium but the image of the ‘immigrant’ is still deeply ingrained in them and they feel they have no place nor trust in society, no hope.” Bilal, who is my aunt’s former partner, and who I still consider my uncle, has had his own experiences with this kind of double-consciousness. “One of my teachers told me I would end up just like my father, a laborer, only good for lifting and pushing wheelbarrows.” He says that having two older sisters and a mother constantly supporting him prevented these comments from defining him. But for a lot of the youth he interacts with, he has noticed defeatist parents who do not want, or do not know how, to intervene. “But it remains a minority” Bilal insists.

This context is important to make sense of the “riots” or “outbursts” in Brussels and other cities across Belgium following the game, of which spectacular images circulated both in the local and international press. For Medhoune, these can be read as “violent forms of political affirmation,” as opposed to civic ones. “There were no specific demands or claims” he says, “it was an explosion, the expression of a built-up resentment,” with most of the estimated 150 to 300 young men taking part being under 18 years old. He points to school drop-outs during the pandemic, the problem of an “educational apartheid” in Brussels that creates a skill and opportunity gap between immigrant youth and the rest of the population, and discrimination in both the job and housing markets.

The optics of the World Cup can erase complexities. After all, the Cup was conceived specifically as a  nationalistic tournament, with little space for blurry identities and fluid allegiances. That is partly what is so fun about watching it. There is a particular kind of pleasure in having a space that forces you to perform a set identity. At the end of the day, you have to pick a team, and commit to it, in victory and defeat.

But belonging is not a sport. And the kind of simplistic, identitarian reading of the upheavals as revealing a “Moroccan identity [that] has remained much stronger than the Belgian one,” as one conservative Belgian political commentator argued, erases complicated histories and reinforces a binary trap, one that sees nationality as a zero-sum game, an irony in a country that is already a mashup of multiple cultures and languages. The reality of a society, and of the world, is much more messy.

Further Reading