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People walk past a sports apparel shop in Morocco's capital Rabat on December 13, 2022 a day ahead of the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup semi-final football match between Morocco and France.FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images

The narrative for Wednesday’s semi-final between Morocco and France is shaping up as one of the most potent in World Cup history: the first African and Arab country ever to reach the semi-finals will confront its former European colonizer in a classic underdog-against-champion showdown with a sharp geopolitical edge.

For many African soccer fans, the narrative became even more dramatic after the Atlas Lions managed to defeat three of Europe’s traditional colonial powers – Belgium, Spain and Portugal – in their astonishing journey to the final four.

But while Morocco’s historic achievement has sparked a wave of excitement and support across Africa, it is also generating some conflicted feelings. Many Africans have mixed emotions about the North African team – largely because of Morocco’s own history.

“I refuse to celebrate,” said Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, a prominent MP in a South African opposition party, in a tweet after Morocco’s shocking upset of Portugal in the quarter-finals.

“Africa must reject Morocco until they end their occupation of Western Sahara,” he said, adding a #FreeWesternSahara hashtag for emphasis.

Ndlozi was referring to one of the bitterest issues in Africa: the long-standing Moroccan occupation of the disputed territory known as Western Sahara, whose fight for independence is supported by the African Union and many African governments. Many Africans consider the territory to be the last colony on the continent.

The dispute over Western Sahara – known to its supporters as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic – has weakened Morocco’s political and diplomatic links to the African continent for decades. In 1984, the Moroccan government quit the first postindependence pan-African union, the Organisation of African Unity, because of the Western Sahara issue. For the next 33 years, it refused to join the OAU or its successor organization, the African Union, until finally relenting in 2017.

Less than two months ago, in an example of African support for Western Saharan independence, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa welcomed the territory’s president, Brahim Ghali, on a state visit to Pretoria. South Africa also hosted a “solidarity conference” for the territory in 2019, and the Ramaphosa government has touted its “strong historical ties dating back to the years of the struggle against colonialism and apartheid.”

Despite the long-standing territorial dispute, Morocco’s soccer team has been anxious to claim an African identity. “We are here to represent Africa,” head coach Walid Regragui said in a television interview earlier in the tournament. “We want to fly Africa’s flag high, just like Senegal, Ghana, Cameroon.”

The team’s Arab identity has also been vividly on display, with its players often waving a Palestinian flag after victories. This, too, has endeared them to the many Africans who support Palestinian rights, one of the continent’s most popular political causes.

Unsurprisingly, there were widespread celebrations in many African countries on the weekend when Morocco stunned the heavily favoured Portugal team in a 1-0 victory.

On social media, however, the divisions were more evident, with fierce debate about the meaning of Morocco’s victory.

Some Africans expressed joy at seeing the Atlas Lions advancing to the semi-finals. “This is a testimony that Africa is rising and we are a force to be reckoned with,” former Somali president Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed tweeted.

“For me it’s a celebration because Morocco eliminated colonizers,” one South African soccer fan said on Twitter.

But others were less happy. Western Saharan activists tweeted that they found it difficult to rejoice for the Moroccan victory when their territory remained occupied. Others voiced their concern about Morocco’s attitude toward the rest of Africa.

Borges Nhamirre, a Mozambican journalist and researcher at the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies, reacted to the World Cup events by posting a 2019 article from an Arab online media platform with the headline: “Why do Moroccans deny being African?”

The article described “anti-African sentiment” in Morocco, especially on migrant issues. It reported that a bus company had posted a notice requiring any “Africans” travelling to Morocco’s border cities to be subjected to special checks of their identity documents.

Some Moroccans “have forgotten or deliberately decided to forget that they geographically belong to the African continent,” the article said.