Get into a Moroccan coffee shop at any time the Moroccan National soccer team is playing and you will have the chance of a lifetime to put a face on the concept of patriotism. You will run into a near-manic-depressive audience, nervously sipping on their cups of tea or coffee and puffing on their cigarettes. They will not utter a word nor gesture until a significant occasion is created by either team. They will silently (and oftentimes verbally) hold high expectations from the referee, the bulk of which is that he shall side with their team. Most times their team will lose, which will lead them into distinguishable nervous breakdowns in which they blame every single officeholder for the downfall of Moroccan football. Sometimes, nevertheless, they will feel on top of the world. Cars will be honking along the country’s boulevards with the Moroccan flag being waved all over the place. My last encounter with such hysteria was June 4th, 2011.
There had to be an explanation to why a nation that is trailing behind in every single human development indicator was suddenly feeling good about itself. After all, we had beaten Algeria, our lifetime geopolitical foe, oftentimes introduced in Moroccan media as the single greatest threat to Moroccan sovereignty. The score was nothing short of impressive either. It’s not always that you get to score four goals without being scored against. Outside, it was almost impossible to circulate. You could swear Moroccans were going to make June 4th a National holiday. National media broadcast videos of government ministers following the game from some VIP lounge and jumping all over the place at every goal scored. Unless you were able to contextualize events, such images would have convinced you that Morocco is one happy homogeneous country, the people of which just get along. Because in 2011 of all years, the stakes could not be higher. The Arab Spring revolutions were toppling one dictator after another, encouraging the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa to take a deeper look at what made their lives so miserable. When you are a government official in such an overcharged environment, your whole attention becomes focused on finding areas of unity and collective agreement. And Moroccans love their soccer, passionately so. Invited to speak against a militant of the February 20th movement, Moncef Belkhayat, then Moroccan Minister of Youth and Sports, dismissed his interlocutor’s discourse by suggesting that if anything, Moroccans should follow the June 4th movement, not February 20th. Yes. An insignificant soccer win was all the Makhzen (Ministry of Interior) establishment needed in order to absorb popular outrage and turn it into days of National pride.
But then Morocco did not make it to that African Cup’s second round. Neither did they pass the first round in 2013’s, despite the overmediatized change of coach. Depressed and desillusioned, your average Moroccan would wake up to the same archaic infrastructure, through which they would take their kids to the same failing schools. They would in the process have to deal with the same corrupt administration, which would eventually make them sick. To cure that, they would have to stand in long lines within the same crumbling public hospitals, and would have to bribe their way into a doctor’s consultation. On their way back home, they would find out that their kids did not learn much in school, except a bunch of texts that they had to memorize without understanding. They would (try to) sleep at night, hoping for a better day. Another day when the collective frustrations of their fellow Moroccans are turned into a screen with a football game on. That day again, they would hope for a win.
What makes Nations great, really? I do not believe the answer to that is their world standing in soccer. Because if athletics are any measure of achievement, it is at the Olympic Games that one should be looking. Throughout decades, the Olympic medal rankings have somehow always been consistent with the rankings on economic growth, literacy rates and health. In other words, Human Development rankings. Some nations you will never miss at the Olympic top ten. The United States. Great Britain. China. France. Russia. Australia. If you had to adopt a checklist approach in evaluating them, you would find out that they not only harvest Gold medals, but they also were able to produce and sustain the greatest infrastructure, the highest literacy rates, most of the world’s academic publications, the mightiest armies and the fastest growing economies. Being great at sports at a world stage was just one of those things they have invested in to confirm the global significance of their culture and identity. Confirm it, not try to prove it. The attention allocated by those cultures to athletics originates from a belief in the excellence of human nature in all fields. Swimmer Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, was spotted at age 10 in his home state Baltimore. Sponsored and supported by his country, all he had to do was work hard and break records. A role model, not just for wannabe swimmers, but for anyone willing to invest time and effort in the pursuit of success. Meanwhile, the recently held London Olympics unveiled three doping cases within the Moroccan Olympic team. Yes, three. Remnants of a culture which still believes that gaming the system is proof of skill.
There are no shortcuts to greatness. All it takes is integrity, hard work and dedication. And if being good at football was ever a sign of greatness, then we as Moroccans are certainly not great. Success in international sports has a track record of being a function of very clear development metrics. Perhaps we should focus on those first.