As Arabs across the globe rally behind the Moroccan soccer squad that has beaten some of Europe’s best players to win a historic place in the World Cup semi-finals, one country isn’t cheering along: Its next-door neighbour.
In Algeria, which has a long-running feud with Morocco, the Atlas Lions’ success at the Qatar-hosted tournament has been either downplayed by official media or in most cases ignored entirely. While the team’s Saturday victory over Portugal was celebrated in headlines from Baghdad to Cairo, Algeria’s state-run TV channels instead ran prime-time reports on small anti-government protests in Morocco.
And although Egypt and Saudi Arabia among others have congratulated Morocco, no such tidings have been reported from Algiers.
Little is likely to change Wednesday when Morocco faces France, the former colonial ruler of both it and Algeria — the first time an Arab or African team has been among the World Cup’s final four. Already frosty relations between the neighbours have soured in the past year, as a simmering standoff over the disputed territory of Western Sahara threatened to explode and gas-rich Algeria cut off diplomatic ties with Morocco as well as energy exports.
Outside the government’s official silence, there are signs the Lions can bank on support from some regular Algerians. Fans like Said, a warehouse worker, is among those who’ve thronged Algiers’ late-night cafes to watch the games. “They’ve performed a miracle,” he said, asking that his full name not be used so he could speak freely.
Other supporters have gone further. Videos shared on social media show scores of them gathered at Bin Lajraf, near a border post between Algeria and its rival that’s been closed for almost three decades, to exchange greetings with Moroccans on the other side after a win.
Algeria’s media has been reporting around Morocco throughout the tournament. Earlier this month, a TV station managed the tricky feat of referring to a Moroccan win without naming Algeria’s rival. Spain had been knocked out, a news anchor announced, but didn’t explain how.
Privately-owned outlets don’t follow those protocols. A prominent item on the front page of the French-language L’Expression newspaper hailed Morocco’s latest win and declared “What a team, what stamina, what a feat!”
The Arabic daily Akhbar Al-Watan led an edition with a photo of the victory. Even Algeria’s top player, Manchester City winger Riyad Mahrez, has voiced admiration for the Moroccan team.
“I’ll support them against France,” said Said, the warehouse worker. “I hope they will follow their dreams to the end.”