The Atlas Lions, Morocco’s national football team, had a very good run at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. In a stunning performance that history buffs like me have milked dry for symbolism, Morocco handily dispatched Spain and Portugal in the knockout stage and quarterfinals, respectively, to land a grand semi-final showdown against France.

They lost – their first and only loss in the tournament.

This is the first time an African team has made it to the semi-finals of the World Cup. And it was a delight to watch. From the surreal sight of the Moroccan flag at the top of the Group F standings, to Sofiane Boufal dancing with his mother pitch-side after the Portugal game, to hearty hugs with victorious French players, Morocco has served up homely moments throughout the tournament.

For its entire history, the World Cup has been dominated by European and South American teams. The last time a team from outside the two regions made it to the semi-finals was in 2002, when South Korea’s mad run through its opponents took it to the third place.

This edition of the World Cup has not been any different — except that the only “outsider” to enter the quarter-finals was an African team which very nearly made it to the top.

As many pundits have pointed out, the team’s stellar showing cannot be credited to luck alone. Over the past decade, Morocco has reformed its football governance and invested heavily in the sport. It not only tapped local talent but drew from its prodigious diaspora, ending up with the largest percentage of foreign-born players of any team in the tournament. Even Walid Regragui, who goes down as the first African coach to lead a team to the semis, was born in France.

What we have seen is the result of years of painstaking work to develop what is now arguably the best-developed football ecosystem in Africa. It is also a reminder what’s possible when a team discards self-doubt. As Yassine Bounou, the goalkeeper, told Reuters after their victory against Portugal, “we’re here to change the mentality. This feeling of inferiority, we need to get rid of it… The generation coming after us will now know that Moroccan players can create miracles.”

And miracles came.

Even in their loss against France, the Moroccans brought their A-game, and dominated the play. But it was not to be. And so the Atlas Lions, like the mighty armies of the Umayyad dynasty, ground to a halt against the successors of the Frankish defenders of Europe. Except, of course, it was all in a spirit of brotherhood and sportsmanship.

It is interesting that this excellent African example, which other African countries need to study and emulate, has been set by a country whose African identity is disputed. Even now, the question of whether Morocco represents Africa or the Arab world (as if it cannot do both), has taken much of the bandwidth in the conversation about their World Cup run.

Not even the team has been able to sidestep the conversation. Following their win against Spain, Sofiane Boufal (of dancing with mum fame), claimed the victory for the Arab and Muslim world, rather than for Africa. His country’s Football Association echoed him, saying in a statement that the win had nothing to do with Africa.

On the other hand, Mr Regragui, the coach, holds the opposite view. In an earlier interview, he said, “I am not here to be a politician. We want to fly Africa’s flag high just like Senegal, Ghana, and Cameroon. We are here to represent Africa.” He has taken every opportunity since to stress the African-ness of his team, and to champion the prospects of the sport on the continent.

I bring this up, not to detract from the Moroccans’ brilliance, but to acknowledge its poignancy.

It is understandable that, as a majority Arab-speaking, Muslim, Berber-populated country with stronger historical ties to Europe and the Middle East than with the lands south of the Sahara, Morocco’s identity is ambiguous.

However, when the dust settles, it is also true that the Atlas Lions went to Qatar as part of the African delegation, and when they alone were left there, they carried the hopes of African soccer fans.

Questions of identity fade slowly. After the World Cup, the question of whether Morocco is Arab, or Berber, or African will recede into the background, simmering away until it is provoked by another momentous event.

What is settled is that Morocco has become the first African country (however that is defined) to make it to the semi-finals of a World Cup. And this is an achievement which all of us Africans can be proud of.

Mathew Otieno

Mathew Otieno writes from Kisumu, Kenya.