Marseille, the second-largest city in France, is neither here nor there. Hemmed in on three sides by hills and mountains and cliffs, it is cut off from country and continent; the front door of Marseille was once its harbor, now known as the Vieux-Port, meaning that the city faces the sea, looks out onto the Mediterranean. Across the Mediterranean lies Algiers, the twin of Marseille, and more broadly the Maghreb, a large swath of which belonged to France in the previous century. Marseille, then, by virtue of its geography, was the gateway to the French empire, the port from which soldiers and settlers departed for colonies overseas. But that movement went both ways. With the violent end of colonial rule in the middle of the twentieth century, Marseille became the gateway for the French Empire, for people fleeing North Africa in the hopes of finding safety on European shores. Decolonization transformed the city, to such an extent that today some residents jokingly ask: do we live in the southernmost reaches of France, or the northernmost reaches of the Maghreb?
Here, to be sure, the semi-final matchup between France and Morocco in the 2022 World Cup was of particular relevance. The mere visual—online and on television, in newspapers and in magazines—of the French tricolor alongside the red and green Moroccan flag was reminiscent of Marseille’s complex identity. As the birthplace of Zinédine Zidane, the former face of French soccer, the city, too, has long served as an important if enigmatic backdrop for the national team. Zidane, born to parents from Kabylie, Algeria and raised in La Castellane—an infamous project constructed in the 1960s to house immigrants arriving from North Africa—was often interpreted as the bellwether of postcolonial France, his success viewed as proof of its well-being, his failure, its volatility. But that is true of the national team more generally, many of whose players, like many Marseillais, trace their ancestry back to former colonies. Now, unexpectedly, France was competing against one of those countries, Morocco, in a high-stakes game on the international stage. I wanted to know: what was the mood in Marseille?
For much of the tournament the atmosphere had been subdued. Some of that was the expectation of success, the French being the current champions and having appeared in three—and then, after Wednesday, four—of the past six World Cup Finals. Winter was another factor. A spate of inclement weather coincided with the dates of the tournament, leaving residents, accustomed to a social life à l’extérieur, little choice but to retreat indoors. When outdoors, pedestrian and café-goer alike were clad in winterwear, not the blue and white kit of the national team, though perhaps such jerseys were concealed beneath jacket and hoodie. Unlikely. That reserve in clothing formed a pattern with the absence of French flags on storefronts and balconies, as if soccer-related paraphernalia, like summer foliage, were unable to survive the colder months.
In the past the World Cup has been a summer affair. This year, however, FIFA decided to shift the schedule of the tournament to account for the desert climate of its host country, Qatar, which was awarded the event following a suspicious meeting between former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, former French soccer star-turned-FIFA official Michel Platini, and two Qatari representatives. The athletes, then, did not suffer in the heat; but, of course, the laborers who built the infrastructure of the competition did. As has been widely reported, over 6,500 people died as Qatar raced ahead with the construction of hotels, highways, and stadiums. Those stadiums were envisioned as shrines to Qatari prosperity; they will double as memorials.
So, in addition to the been-there-done-that sentiment and the bad winter weather, there was another reason for the lack of enthusiasm in Marseille: ethical opposition. As elsewhere in France, the city, pointing to a “humanitarian and environmental catastrophe,” opted to boycott the tournament by not screening matches for the public. The boycott was not merely municipal: some citizens refused to watch the World Cup altogether. Such was the case at Le Derby, a Corsican brasserie in the fourth arrondissement, where I had been invited by an American expatriate to take in the contest between the United States and the Netherlands (the city-wide ban did not include private establishments like bars and restaurants). The two of us were seated at a table perpendicular to the wall on which the match was being projected. Midway through the first half we were joined by a third acquaintance, Clément, a musician originally from Lyon. Clément seated himself across from me—the wall was to his right—ordered an herbal tea, and spoke of his plans to travel to India. At some point I realized that, unlike the other patrons of Le Derby, he had not turned to face the wall, was, in fact, determined not to acknowledge the match. He cited a quartet of reservations: the industrialization of soccer, corruption, human rights abuses, and the malalignment of Qatar with Western values like democracy and sexual freedom. We remained in place for an hour and a half. Around him talk was of the Dutch wing-back Denzel Dumfries. Clément did not so much as glance to his right.
That approach was not shared by most people with ties to Morocco. The Moroccan national team upset one European heavyweight after another; and as they did support for the country became increasingly visible. First there were the flags, which began to crop up in apartment windows after Morocco defeated Belgium. Then there were the motorcyclists, who, having tied flag around neck as a makeshift cape, whizzed down the boulevards, green pentagram streaming behind them, thrilled that Morocco had knocked out Spain. Finally there were the fireworks, exuberant, unexpected, set off after Morocco eliminated Portugal.
On December 12, following that match and the French victory over England that came on its heels, I went to the local consulate to take the pulse of the Moroccan community in Marseille. At the consulate—located on Allée Léon Gambetta, whose name commemorates the politician celebrated as the founder of the Third Republic, during which time Morocco became a protectorate of France—I was received by a middle-aged official named Marwa.1 Sifting through various livrets de famille, a type of record book which attests to bonds of family, Marwa said: “We are happy—happy, happy, happy.” But, she continued, Moroccans were not numerous in Marseille; many more lived in Avignon and Nice, two cities to which the consulate travelled every summer to provide visa services and to process mixed marriages. She explained that the few who did live in Marseille hailed from central Morocco, above all Casablanca and Marrakech, because that region, as contrasted with the north, had been colonized by France. Those from the north who wished to live in Europe often ended up in Spain or the Netherlands; and in the latter country, Marwa added, things were sedate and orderly—no adolescent would be spotted in the streets after 7 o’clock. “Unlike Marseille,” she said, “where minors run free.”
On Allée Léon Gambetta the security guard of the consulate was in dialogue with a passerby. The security guard was wearing a black chinstrap to fend off the cold; the passerby, a blue coronavirus mask tucked beneath his jawline. They were discussing the match between Spain and Morocco, which had resulted in a penalty shootout. Both marveled at Yassine Bounou, the Moroccan goalkeeper known as Bono, who had saved a pair of shots to vault Morocco into its matchup against Portugal. As they spoke the security guard became excited; he positioned himself in the doorway of the consulate; and there, stretching his arms to the side, he reenacted the heroics of Bono. The marble threshold leading to the Moroccan consul general in Marseille—two goalposts and a crossbar. I asked who he was pulling for between France and Morocco. There was a beat. “Couscous and chicken,” he said, referring to the popular Maghrebi dish and the Gallic rooster emblematic of the French national team. “Do we put the couscous with the chicken? Or the chicken with the couscous?” He paused. “We cannot go wrong.”
That satisfaction regardless of outcome was echoed at El Marhaba, a snack, or fast food restaurant, located at the edge of Cours Lieutaud. Issam—a rangy, convivial manager outfitted in a red polo and a black cap—told me that the risk of disappointment was none, for his loyalty—stemming from his Moroccan heritage and his French upbringing—was twofold. (Inside El Marhaba red and green balloons had been affixed to the ceiling, and on the back wall two flags, one French, one Moroccan, had been tacked to either side of a television screen.) “You should see my kids,” Issam continued. At his home in La Capelette, a neighborhood in the tenth arrondissement, one child had been wearing face paint in the colors of the French flag, the other face paint in the colors of the Moroccan flag. “It’s 50-50,” he said with a smile. “For French-Moroccans we will win no matter what.”
As we were speaking Issam had paused to say salam alaikum to a client taking his leave, who in return had given us a big thumbs up. That man was Algerian, Issam had explained. And Algerians—of whom, of course, there were many in Marseille—had rallied around Morocco. But what of the political discord between the neighboring countries? “That is for the bureaucrats,” Issam replied. “On the level of the people there is goodwill.” So the Moroccan national team was blurring the boundaries drawn up in the Maghreb, had come to represent North Africa as a region. As a symbol it was capable of expanding, of amalgamating disparate groups. I recalled that when posing for photographs the Moroccan players had unfurled a Palestinian flag—surely a striking image for other Arab populations. But, I wondered, what about the Jewish community in Marseille? The majority of those families had emigrated from the Maghreb; they maintained a deep affinity with Israel.
To my surprise some Moroccan Jews were unfazed. At Patisserie Avyel, a Jewish bakery on rue Saint-Suffren, Joseph Sultan, an inhabitant of Marseille by way of Tangiers, insisted on the separation of sport and politics, even if the Moroccan players had collapsed that distinction. Last spring Joseph had described to me a sense of transience borne of his fear of anti-Semitism. Then he had said: “The Jew is someone who always has his luggage in hand.” Now I asked who he wanted to win between France and Morocco. He said: “France is an adopted home. Morocco, on the other hand, is where I was born, where I grew up.” He fiddled with the houndstooth scarf wrapped around his neck. “Morocco.”
Muslim, Jew—no matter. The Atlas Lions of Morocco—the first Arab nation to ascend to a peak of international soccer—were irresistible, drawing in support from seemingly opposed corners of Marseille. Not just the first Arab nation, though; the first African, too. The realm of identification had extended well east of Morocco, across North Africa and into the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula; but, I suspected, that zone also likely went south, to regions beneath the Sahara. I was curious: to what degree had the Moroccan national team become not only a symbol of the Arab world—and one inclusive of different religions—but an avatar of the African continent?
On the day of the semi-final I met Divintime Ifeanyichukwu at a frigid café in Noailles, a neighborhood consisting largely of African immigrants in the first arrondissement. Divintime had chosen the spot—a hole in the wall in which the lingua franca oscillated between French and Arabic—because of its convenient location: he worked au black, as the expression notably goes in French, or off the books, at a hair salon directly across the street, doing so while preparing an appeal of his twice-rejected claim for asylum. A native of Nigeria, Divintime fled Igbo State in 2016 in the aftermath of a violent government crackdown on protesters advocating for Biafran independence. Niger, Libya, Italy—only in 2019 did Divintime arrive in France.
Having ordered a demitasse of espresso and a cup of hot water, Divintime, round-faced and composed, discussed his pleasure at witnessing the jubilation in Noailles when Morocco defeated Portugal four days prior. Speaking in English, he said: “Young men jumping off the roofs of cars, old women dancing in the streets, Moroccan flags everywhere. When you see that, the sadness goes out immediately.” He took a sip of hot water. “Today Morocco represents Africa.” But, Divintime noted, allegiance amongst Nigerians in Marseille was determined by their degree of françisation, by the extent to which each individual had adapted to French culture, to the French language. Those with five years in the country—they were rooting for France; those who had only recently showed up—not so much.
That was true for other newcomers in Europe. So said Ray Trawally, a Gambian whose acquaintance I’d made nine months ago on the vast staircase leading to the main train station in Marseille, a staircase embellished with 20th-century statues celebrating the then-colonies in Asia and, more strikingly, Africa, and a site that remains a popular hangout spot for men in their twenties and thirties from sub-Saharan countries, in particular Senegal, the Gambia, Ghana, Benin, and Nigeria, men who, like Divintime, like Ray, trekked across the Sahara and then traversed the Mediterranean in order to reach the coast of Sicily. I spoke to Ray by phone, for he has spent the past several months in a migrant camp in Viechtach, Germany.
“Everybody on the steps,” Ray said, referring to the aforementioned staircase, “everybody praying for Morocco. My entire camp is rooting for Morocco. Hundreds of people here. In my room I got a Senegalese and a Yemeni—both rooting for Morocco.” I reminded Ray that last summer I had heard a recurring anti-Arab sentiment amongst the milieu outside the train station. Ray replied: “That don’t matter right now. We all represent Africa. African team never won. I can tell—all Africans, Black, Arab—everybody want Morocco.” There was a pause. “But I ain’t gonna lie,” Ray continued. “My team is Brazil.” My team is Brazil: Morocco, in the build-up to the World Cup semi-final, had become a transcontinental idea; but for Ray, as for Divintime, the identification was still secondhand.
And France? At L’Estaminet, a cozy bar in the Camas neighborhood of the fifth arrondissement, where I watched the much-anticipated semi-final match on Wednesday night, a miniature tricolor had been wedged next to the typical array of pendants and photographs relating to l’Olympique de Marseille, the local soccer team known as OM, and a navy scarf embroidered with a white Gallic rooster had been spread out on the wall above the usual advertisement for Ricard, a local maker of pastis. The patrons hugged when Theo Hernández and Kolo Muani scored, cried out when Kylian Mbappé was tackled. But a pot-bellied regular said of the crowd, “This is nothing. When OM plays Paris or Monaco, you can’t get inside.” A few minutes later I found myself in conversation with the former wife of the owner of the bar, a French-Moroccan woman who was outfitted in a bright red dress and a lime green wristwatch. (I wondered if she had had a hand in the Moroccan flag arranged on the tarp of the outdoor hut, the jersey of the Moroccan captain, Hakim Ziyech, taped to the storefront window.)
I asked: “Does Marseille care more about OM than Les Bleus?”
“No question,” she said. “Here the local identity is almost a national identity.”
“And OM is almost a national team?”
So—thinking once more of the ennui surrounding much of the tournament—a fourth reason emerged: the primacy of Marseillais identity. The deeper loyalty was to city, not state; that attachment formed the bedrock of the collective psyche. France, not unlike Morocco for certain Africans in the city, was a meaningful but secondary allegiance. That allegiance, though, was not nonexistent. At the end of the match, when France had defeated Morocco and “Ramenez la coupe à la maison,” the title of which translates to “Bring the Cup Home,” resounded throughout the bar, my attention was drawn to Bruno, the owner, who was preparing pastis in celebration. I saw that his son, no older than 10, was perched atop his shoulders. The boy had on a sky blue l’Olympique de Marseille jersey; and on each cheek, like Issam’s children in La Capelette, a tiny flag had been painted. The flags were blue, white, red; but the paint had been applied at such an angle that at first glance I mistook the colors for Dutch. They were French; and yet here patriotism was rendered aslant, oblique, even indirect.
After the match I walked down to the Vieux-Port. At the foot of Boulevard Garibaldi, next to El Marhaba, I heard cries, car horns; and in Noailles, one block from where I had met Divintime, I watched as a blue Citroën—its frame thumping with the music of IAM, a local rap group—sped past, windows down, a French flag draped on one side and an Algerian flag draped on the other. I followed the car to La Canebière—the fault line separating north from south, rich from poor—where motorcyclists, ten, eleven, twelve, zipped up the boulevard, like racehorses shot out of the gates. To the left seagulls, to the right firecrackers. On Quai des Belges the national police had been stationed; and there I passed street vendors selling bananas, bags of nuts, boissons fraîches et chaudes.
By the harbor a crowd had amassed. The crowd was made up of men dressed in black. They were elated, ecstatic. A giant French flag billowed in their midst; and the main flagbearer was waving a smaller Algerian flag, too. I crossed the street, entered the throng. Slowly I realized that the crowd was made up not of men but of teenagers, in front, to the side, in back of me, boys in black hoodies and black sweatpants. I remembered what Marwa had said at the Moroccan consulate. Two fireworks were set off in quick succession. The shower of sparks was neither blue nor white but rather red and green. Below the French flag flowed. 50-50, couscous and chicken, the logic of Marseille: a celebration of France in the colors of North Africa.
Marwa requested to use this alias in place of her name. ↩