Waving the Flag of the World Cup’s Unofficial Team

AL RAYYAN, Qatar — In the tumult, in those minutes of unrestrained joy after Morocco became the first Arab team to reach the quarterfinals of soccer’s World Cup, the players took a moment to come together after their famous victory and huddle for a photograph to capture the moment. Together on the turf where they had labored for more than two hours to outlast Spain, cheering and smiling and with the throng of red-clad Moroccan fans roaring behind them, the players and their coaches pressed together and waited as a flag was unfurled.

It wasn’t Morocco’s flag.

There in the middle of the team photo, stretched out so it could be displayed in all its glory, was the Palestinian banner. Morocco, the best Arab team at the first Arab World Cup, had set off celebrations across North Africa and beyond with its win. Now, in its moment of triumph, as the World Cup’s 32 teams were whittled to a final eight, it stopped to draw attention to a place, and a cause, that unites many Arab fans and citizens in sympathy.

Morocco’s players and coaches posed with a Palestinian flag after beating Spain.Credit…Glyn Kirk/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“Palestine is the 33rd country in the World Cup,” said Abdullah Mansouri, a Moroccan fan trying to make himself heard above the horns and drums that accompanied his country’s win. “Palestine is our cause, our struggle in the Arab world, in all the Arab world.”

One of the features of the first World Cup to be played in the Muslim world has been the ubiquitous presence of the red, white, green and black colors of a team that is a member of FIFA but not a full member of the United Nations. The tournament has offered a rare moment of Arab solidarity, with fans from different countries cheering on one another’s teams — and expressing support for the Palestinian cause — even as some Arab governments, including Morocco’s, have recently normalized relations with Israel.

That kind of normalization is not mirrored on the Arab street, as it is known, revealing a disconnect with the Arab leadership, and a sense that the Palestinian cause still resonates widely with people across the Arab world and the Arab diaspora.

On the ground and in the stadiums in Qatar, for example, Palestinian flags, Palestinian armbands and even black-and-white headdresses, or kaffiyehs, featuring the Palestinian flag have all been on display throughout the monthlong tournament. And as the other Arab and Muslim nations that had qualified have left the tournament, Morocco, the last one still playing, has become the standard-bearer for the Palestinian cause.

A Brief Guide to the 2022 World Cup

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What is the World Cup? The quadrennial event pits the best national soccer teams against each other for the title of world champion. Here’s a primer to the 2022 men’s tournament:

Where is it being held? This year’s host is Qatar, which in 2010 beat the United States and Japan to win the right to hold the tournament. Whether that was an honest competition remains in dispute.

When is it? The tournament opened on Nov. 20, when Qatar played Ecuador. Over the two weeks that follow, four games will be played on most days. The tournament ends with the final on Dec. 18.

Is a winter World Cup normal? No. The World Cup usually takes place in July. But in 2015, FIFA concluded that the summer temperatures in Qatar might have unpleasant consequences and agreed to move the tournament to the relatively bearable months of November and December.

How many teams are competing? Thirty-two. Qatar qualified automatically as the host, and after years of matches, the other 31 teams earned the right to come and play. Meet the teams here.

How does the tournament work? The 32 teams are divided into eight groups of four. In the opening stage, each team plays all the other teams in its group once. The top two finishers in each group advance to the round of 16. After that, the World Cup is a straight knockout tournament.

How can I watch the World Cup in the U.S.? The tournament will be broadcast on Fox and FS1 in English, and on Telemundo in Spanish. You can livestream it on Peacock, or on streaming services that carry Fox and FS1. Here’s how to watch every match.

When will the games take place? Qatar is three hours ahead of London, eight hours ahead of New York and 11 hours ahead of Los Angeles. That means there will be predawn kickoffs on the East Coast of the United States for some games, and midafternoon starts for 10 p.m. games in Qatar.

Got more questions? We’ve got more answers here.

“Palestine is our second country, is our topic, is our identity — like humanity, like Muslim people,” said one fan, Aicha Hajjaj, as she headed out of Education City Stadium with her husband, Mohammed Bouhride, who had a Palestinian flag draped over his Morocco team jersey. “They are suffering.”

Bouhride then turned to his young daughter and asked her to name the capital of Palestine. She didn’t skip a beat. “Al Quds,” came the reply, followed by a big smile. Al Quds is the Arabic name for Jerusalem, the city that both Palestinians and Israelis define as their true capital.

The outpouring of support in Qatar has been widely cheered in the West Bank, with many Palestinians sharing videos and photographs of the flag being displayed on social media, and expressing happiness that they were still being supported throughout the Arab world, even if some governments have forged diplomatic agreements with Israel.

“To see Palestinians cheering for Morocco and Moroccans cheering for Palestine is one of the most significant Arab popular rejections of normalization with Israel,” the Palestinian journalist and editor Ramzy Baroud told Days of Palestine. “This moment will live in the minds of several generations of Arabs forever.”

On Tuesday, thousands of fans arrived at Morocco’s game dressed with similar emblems of support, something the Qatari hosts of the tournament — who have actively restricted political displays on other fronts — have done little to stop. In the V.I.P. seats, and even the V.V.I.P seats, guests have paired their traditional crisp white thobes with armbands in small black-and-white checks, an approximation of the Palestinian kaffiyeh after Germany’s interior minister attended her country’s opening game wearing a rainbow-colored armband. Ever since, the sight of armbands featuring the Palestinian flag have multiplied.

A man wore an armband with a Palestine flag design at the World Cup.Credit…Adrian Dennis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Morocco’s Jawad El Yamiq with a Palestinian flag after his team qualified for the round of 16.Credit…Natalia Kolesnikova/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
After a victory against Spain sent Morocco to the quarterfinals, he unfurled a Moroccan one.Credit…Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

In the stands and on the field, the efforts have been far less discreet. At several games, including at Tuesday’s famous victory, flags with the words “Free Palestine” have been unfurled in several sections of the stadium, including several at Education City. Morocco’s players have carried the Palestinian flag onto the field after several matches, and their advancements to the knockout round led some fans to travel to Qatar from the occupied territories.

Abdullah Alzeer watched Morocco’s final game in the group stage at home in Ramallah, the administrative hub of the occupied West Bank. As soon as Morocco’s victory over Canada confirmed it would play in the round of 16, he logged onto a ticket resale site, paid about $275 for a seat and then made his travel plans.

It was a circuitous journey. Alzeer said he first traveled — with his brother and two friends — to Jordan before flying on to Doha. The reception has been extraordinary, he said; visitors from the occupied territories have enjoyed something akin to celebrity status in and around Doha, inside the stadiums and in the restaurants and narrow alleyways of the Souq Waqif, the market that has been a magnet for celebrations during the World Cup. Night after night, Tunisians, Moroccans, Saudis, Qataris and even groups of Algerians — whose team did not qualify for this year’s World Cup — have danced and chanted songs celebrating another team that is not here: Palestine.

During Tunisia’s group stage game with France, a protester even ran onto the field carrying a Palestinian flag, bringing a sudden pause to the game but drawing even more attention to the Palestinian cause.

Fans carried a large Palestinian flag through the Souq Waqif after Morocco beat Spain on Tuesday.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

While the celebrations have largely been good-natured — except for the Israeli journalists trying to cover the tournament — and added another layer of local texture to the Arab world’s first World Cup, they have contrasted with the treatment other supporters have often received when trying to enter arenas with flags or banners promoting other causes. Fans with clothing featuring rainbows or other insignia celebrating the L.G.B.T.Q. community, or Iran’s prerevolutionary flag, have been ordered by security guards to either cover them up or surrender them.

FIFA and local organizers have repeatedly ignored requests for comment about why fans carrying or wearing rainbow colors — which are not officially barred from arenas — or messages against Iran’s government have faced significant issues entering stadiums, while those carrying Palestinian flags, which have led to fines for European soccer clubs in the past when used to taunt Israeli teams, have not.

Across the Middle East and North Africa and much of Europe, though, citizens have clearly taken a side. After Morocco beat Spain, fans filled streets in London and Paris, and even in the Spanish capital, Madrid. In Morocco, fans lit flares in Rabat and Casablanca. And in the West Bank, the game’s conclusion was met by honking horns, waving flags and even celebratory gunfire. The fans, and their flags, should be back out on Saturday, when Morocco faces Portugal in the quarterfinals.

Hiba Yazbek contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

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