The city of Angers, France, sits on a hill in the heart of the Loire Valley. It has played a central role in French history: Its cathedral was consecrated in 1096, and the Edict of Nantes, which for a time put an end to the bloody Wars of Religion in France, was written there in 1598 by King Henry IV.
Today, the town is nourishing other histories. Along its southern edge is the neighborhood Roseraie, which, starting in the late 1960s, became the site of several large housing projects—the likes of which sit outside most French cities and are home to diverse populations, including many immigrants and children of immigrants from former French colonies across North and West Africa. In one of these complexes, Zoubida Belmoulat, an immigrant from Morocco, raised her three sons—including Sofiane Boufal, the virtuosic 29-year-old winger for the Moroccan national soccer team.
Across France, such public housing developments have become, over the past several decades, some of the most important heartlands for global soccer. In the 1980s, players such as Zinedine Zidane (from Marseille) and Lilian Thuram (from Fontainebleau, outside Paris) grew up in them, as did today’s French stars Kylian Mbappé and Paul Pogba (from the Paris suburbs of Bondy and Lagny-sur-Marne, respectively). The combination of two factors explains the emergence of so many successful players from these communities: comparatively heavy government investment in sports infrastructure and coaches, and conditions of poverty and exclusion that drive many young people to see sport as their only chance for social mobility in French society.
Boufal started playing on a local team when he was six, and moved through the system and into the academy run by the Angers professional team as a teenager. These academies provide support and training for students as they complete high school, and in return, the players give the professional teams the right to later sign them for a professional contract. Boufal was signed in 2013 and has played for Angers, as well as other teams in France and England, since then.
Because Boufal has both French and Moroccan nationality, he also had a choice to make when it came to international competitions: Would he try to play for France, the country where he was born and raised, or for Morocco, where his family is from? He was scouted at a young age for the Moroccan team and ultimately decided in 2016 to commit to playing for the country. The next years were professionally difficult ones for him, and he wasn’t chosen to play for Morocco during the 2018 World Cup. But this year, he has been a critical player in the country’s delightful run into the semifinals.
Morocco defeated Portugal on Saturday thanks to a header by Youssuf En-Nesyri off an incredible arcing pass by Yahia Attiyat Allah, both of whom were born and raised in Morocco. The scenes of elated, if slightly disbelieving, fans and players celebrating after the game showed pure joy. But the image that most stood out for its sweetness and humanity was of Boufal. His mother, Zoubida, came to join him, and they danced, looking in wonder into each other’s eyes as they moved on the pitch. It was a moment of such intimacy and love that it spread quickly as one of the defining images of the tournament.
Morocco’s victories have been historic on many levels. This Moroccan team is the first from Africa to make it to the semifinals of the World Cup. Going into its match against Portugal, a quarterfinal elimination loomed as a likely outcome.
Some purveyors of satisfying soccer narratives had been pumping up the idea of an Argentina-Portugal (and, more importantly, a Lionel Messi–Cristiano Ronaldo) final so much that the hypothetical lineup sometimes took on an aura of commercial necessity. Plenty stood in the way of this scenario coming to pass, of course, including the fact that Portugal would have had to defeat the reigning champion, France. But if you hadn’t been watching the Moroccan team closely, you might have assumed the game would go in the other direction. The images of a tearful Ronaldo walking to the locker room after the match, leaving what is almost certainly his last World Cup, were a stunning and unexpected swerve in the tournament’s trajectory. Now Messi has sealed his place in the final, and the only question that remains is whether Argentina will face France or Morocco.
The Moroccan team’s World Cup victories against Spain and Portugal have been celebrated all over the world, and they’ve also nurtured the imaginations of soccer fans who are also history nerds. Al-Andalus—the catch-all label for various medieval Islamic states in what is now Spain and Portugal—was freely evoked, and some suggested the winner should get to keep the Alhambra. One historically capacious tweet made this connection: “Morocco, 732 – Morocco, 2022: We have conquered the Iberian peninsula and are prepared to battle France.”
But it is more recent history that gives a particular charge to the France-Morocco game. Starting in 1830, when France invaded and began to colonize Algeria, the country played an increasingly powerful role in Morocco, which became a French protectorate in 1912. Morocco gained its independence from France in 1956, but the two countries remain deeply interconnected both by a shared colonial past and contemporary migration. The match between the two teams may be the ultimate postcolonial World Cup derby.
When the two nations confront each other, most of the players on the pitch will be carrying stories of migration. There has been a consistent pattern of Moroccan migration to Europe, particularly Belgium, France and Spain, over the past decades, and the team reflects that. Boufal is just one of 14 Moroccan players who grew up in the diaspora. The defender Roman Saïss was also born and raised in France; four others on the team grew up in Belgium, and some played on the country’s national youth teams alongside players they defeated earlier in this tournament. The star Moroccan goalie Yassine Bounou was born in Montreal (although he grew up in Morocco), and Hakim Ziyech was born in the Netherlands and came up through that country’s renowned academy system.
France’s players are also mostly from immigrant families. Many could have chosen to play for a parent’s homeland but opted, instead, for France. Aurélien Tchouaméni, whose stunning strike put the team up against England in their quarter-final win, grew up in Bordeaux as the child of a Cameroonian pharmacist and teacher. Kylian Mbappé’s mother is Algerian, and his father is from Cameroon. Theo Hernández (who replaced his brother, Lucas, after he was injured during the first game of the tournament) is of Spanish heritage. And for decades, the French team has been alternately celebrated and vilified for representing a multiethnic France.
Previous games between France and Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia have sometimes become flashpoints. In 2001, a France-Algeria game heralded as an opportunity for postcolonial reconciliation ended early because of a pitch invasion by fans of the Algerian team. The far-right anti-immigration politician Jean-Marie Le Pen—who had long attacked the French team as not being representative of the country because it had so many players of immigrant background—capitalized on the event and announced his 2002 candidacy for president outside the stadium soon after. The pitch invasion, he claimed, clearly showed that many immigrants disrespected France.
Last Saturday night, following France and Morocco’s respective wins, there were celebrations in the streets of Paris and elsewhere throughout France. Those celebrations were for both teams’ victories; people didn’t have to choose between the two. But now, they will.
The only comparable World Cup game to date was a France-Senegal match in 2002, which Senegal famously won—but that was a first game in a group stage. This time, the stakes are much higher, and the potential for conflict between fans seems greater. But to some extent, no matter which team wins the game, both the nation of France and the continent of Africa will be able to claim a part of the victory.
The France-Morocco game brings together many spirals of personal and national histories. The individuals on each team have made different choices about which nation they represent on the global stage. But collectively, they condense stories of movement and diaspora.
At a time when Europe is fixated on controlling and stopping migration from Africa with an intense regime of maritime control in the Mediterranean, the alternative offered by the unfettered and joyous movement of players on the pitch is precious. The game offers us a different way of seeing movement: not as a danger, but as possibility and freedom that makes something beautiful in the world.