Morocco’s Atlas Lions receive hero’s welcome on return home

Morocco’s national football team have received a hero’s welcome upon their return home after accomplishing the seemingly impossible feat of finishing fourth at the World Cup in Qatar.

After their plane touched down on Tuesday, the players rode an open-top bus through the major avenues of the capital, Rabat. With flares, chants and flags, thousands of Moroccans turned out to greet the players, who injected new energy into African and Arab football.

Underdogs Morocco, known as the Atlas Lions, conquered hearts with their never-say-die attitude and made history as one of the big success stories of this year’s tournament.

Morocco defeated elite teams, beating second-ranked Belgium, stunning 2010 champions Spain in a penalty shootout in the last 16, and continuing their impressive run with a 1-0 win against 2016 European champions Portugal, before stumbling against the defending champions France. Along the way, the Atlas Lions became the first African and Arab country to reach a World Cup semifinal.

The players’ record-setting performance earned them a special celebration by fans, as police stood guard in the streets of Rabat. Big crowds lined the streets and the rest of the North African kingdom for the homecoming.

Fans celebrate during a homecoming parade for Morocco national football team in central Rabat [Mosa’ab Elshamy/AP Photo]

Al Jazeera’s Nicolas Haque, reporting from Rabat, described an “ocean of red and green” greeting the national team.

“The people of Morocco are roaring to welcome the Atlas Lions. There is so much pride. I was in the crowd earlier and I met people who came all the way from Holland to witness this moment. Children, families, women, grandparents coming here to witness this moment together,” Haque said.

“There’s such a level of communion that this team has brought to Morocco. As the bus moves slowly towards the palace of the king, you can see crowds of people running behind the bus.”

The royal court said on Monday that King Mohammed VI would receive the team at the palace in Rabat “to celebrate their great and historic accomplishment”.

The team finished fourth in the competition after losing to Croatia 1-2 in the third-place playoff on Saturday, exceeding the expectations of most Moroccans.

“This team has brought so much joy, not only to the people of Morocco, but also to Africans, the Arab world and to millions of Moroccans who live abroad. This team of 11 players, most of them are dual nationals. And there’s pride in being received like this by their country of origin,” Haque said.

The Moroccan team charmed many Arab football fans who saw in the team a reflection of themselves. Players waved the Palestinian flag after their wins and celebrated on the field with their mothers and children.

The team also galvanised support across Africa.

“If someone had told me before the tournament that we would play seven matches in Qatar, we would have been happy,” Morocco coach Walid Regragui told BeIN Sports.

“All Moroccan, African and Arab people have seen how this team fought and wanted to make the country happy … We will try to return after four years,” added the 47-year-old coach, who only took charge in August.

Source: Al Jazeera

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