Mounia O'Neal (left) with her friend Samia Errazzouki (middle) and her brother Hakeem O'Neal in front of New Parkway Theater in Oakland. Credit: Ricky Rodas

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When Sarah Fathallah watched her home country Morocco’s national football team defeat Portugal and advance to the World Cup semi-finals in Qatar on Dec. 10, she was thrilled. But she also felt disconnected from her people. 

“I’m the only one in my family who’s in the U.S. and that’s already an isolating experience as there’s not really a Moroccan community in the Bay Area”, Fathallah said a few hours before the match. “I’d watch the games at 7 a.m. alone in my apartment and be so excited when they won but then have these mixed feelings [afterward].” 

Sarah took a leap of faith and purchased a ticket to Doha, Qatar on Monday, Dec. 12, and arrived on Tuesday. Through an acquaintance, she was able to secure tickets to the semifinal matches: Argentina v. Croatia, and Morocco v. France.

“I knew I needed to either visit Morocco or go to Qatar,” Fathallah told The Oaklandside, “So I decided to go where the action is.” Fathallah was the only passenger on her flight going just to watch the games, but she connected with her people once she arrived in Doha.

Sarah Fathallah at the Morocco v. France match in Doha, Qatar on Wednesday, Dec. 14. Credit: Sarah Fathallah

For the last few weeks, Moroccans around the world embraced a united purpose: to become the first African nation to win the most prestigious tournament in men’s soccer. 

Mounia O’Neal, Fathallah’s friend and Bay Area native who is half-Moroccan, decided to gather with a few of her Moroccan-American friends to watch the game against France at New Parkway Theatre yesterday. This was the first time during the tournament that any of them had watched a match in a group. O’Neal said it has been hard to cultivate this kind of connection to her homeland growing up in the Bay. “I’m proud to be Moroccan and proud to be African and I’m happy to be celebrating with people all over the world,” she said.

O’Neal and her friends passionately chanted “seir!” (“go” in Darjia, a Moroccan Arabic dialect) every time a Moroccan player had possession of the ball, and Mounia put her face in her hands whenever France’s star striker Kylian Mbappe charged toward the Moroccan goalkeeper, Yassine Bounou. 

Morocco lost the match 2-0. The second goal took the air out of a room that was largely cheering for Morocco; a lone group waved a French flag and celebrated their victory. 

However, the North African country has already made history by becoming the first African nation to make it to the World Cup semi-finals since the tournament’s inception in 1930. The last historic African victory at the World Cup was in 1990 when Cameroon became the first African country to advance to the quarter-finals. A Fox Sports commentator noted the symbolic victory, saying, ‘Morocco says they’re playing for Africa, they’re playing for the Arab world.” A person at the Parkway Theater yelled, “They’re playing for everybody!” 

Zunaira Komal, a new Oakland resident and an acquaintance of Mounia’s from Pakistan and Kashmir, echoed this sentiment. “This has been a World Cup of the underdogs. They [Morocco] went after colonizer after colonizer,” Komal said, referring to Morocco’s victories over Belgium, Spain, and Portugal, three European nations that invaded and exploited Africa for hundreds of years. “I’m still in a moment of feeling the loss very deeply, but they still made it this far and they made a way for future African countries.”

Mostafa Raiss El Fenni posing for a photo wearing a mix of traditional Moroccan attire. Credit: Ricky Rodas

“What I like about it is how 11 players can make millions of people happy,” said Mostafa Raiss El Fenni, the owner of Sahara Moroccan Home Decor on Piedmont Avenue in North Oakland. Sahara sells a variety of hand-crafted goods such as furniture, ornamental art, and boxes, all imported from his home country. Raiss El Fenni sometimes greets customers by offering them tea and saying, “Enjoy your trip to Morocco.”

The Oaklandside spoke with Raiss El Fenni a couple of days before the match against France. He was feeling hopeful that his home country would win because for Raiss El Fenni, Morocco’s outstanding performance is a culmination of years of dedication to the sport known as “the beautiful game.” He grew up playing soccer in his home city of Tanjier. 

Sahara Moroccan Home Decor on Piedmont Ave. in North Oakland. Credit: Ricky Rodas

“I spent the whole day at the beach playing soccer for money. When I got home, my father was mad. He asked, ‘Where were you,’” Raiss El Fenni recalled. “I pulled out 10 dirhams [Moroccan currency] out of my pocket and he didn’t say anything to me. After that, if I asked for him money to buy a book or something he would say, ‘Go play soccer.’” 

Memories like these stay with Raiss El Fenni, who has lived in the East Bay since the mid 1990s. “There’s not many Morocccans here but when I moved to California, we created a little community with my Moroccan friends and we would play at the Gilman fields [in Berkeley],” he said. “We played there until the pandemic about 3 years ago.” O’Neal recently discovered Raiss El Fenni’s shop and the two bonded over their families being from the same region in Morocco. “I was looking for a Moroccan flag to buy [for the World Cup] but he was out,” O’Neal said. “ He was so nice and invited me and my mother to have tea sometime.”  

O’Neal said she relates to the Moroccan team despite not being born there. “I’m feeling really proud of my country. I mean, it’s complicated right? It’s not my country but right now it also is my country,” O’Neal said. 

Fathallah, who watched Morocco’s crushing defeat with hundreds of other Moroccans in the stadium in Doha, told The Oaklandside after the game she was “sad but proud.”

Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining The Oaklandside, he spent two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the local news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, is on The Oaklandside team through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.