Brussels, Belgium – As Morocco scored their second goal and secured their victory over Belgium in this year’s World Cup, a packed youth center in Brussels erupted with cheers and hugs.
The Belgian capital is home to a sizable Moroccan diaspora, and on Sunday some 50 teenagers, young adults and volunteers gathered at the Capital’s three-story art deco venue to watch the game.
Young men and women, many of them of Moroccan descent, sat in chairs in front of the big screen in the building’s atrium to watch the game taking place at Qatar’s Al Thumama Stadium.
A few teenagers sold €1 Coke, chips and bags of Skittles near the entrance to the venue, and before the game began, there was much chatter and cheering as the Moroccan team appeared on the screen.
University students Omayma Mesmaoui and Basma Abajadi, both 20, came with friends because they wanted a safe space to watch the game.
Holding a Moroccan flag, Mesmaoui said the match was “very important because it is my home country playing against the country where I live.” Still, he wanted Morocco to win and predicted a 2-1 victory.
“I’m a bit lost because my two nations are playing each other,” said Abajadi, who held a Berber flag of the North African indigenous group.
Abajadi said she was divided on which team to support. But after hearing Belgian captain Kevin De Bruyne say in an interview that her team was “too old” to win in the World Cup, he now expected a draw due to his pessimism.
“It’s because of Kevin that I changed my mind,” he said.
When the game started, the crowd calmed down.
“Allez Ziyech!” shouted the black-clad, hooded teens sitting in the back, referring to Moroccan midfielder Hakim Ziyech.
The founder of the capital’s youth center, Hassan al Hilou, 23, of Iraqi-Dutch descent, said one of the center’s functions is to act as a safe space for people of different backgrounds to come together.
Throughout the match, al Hilou walked around with a big smile, occasionally yelling “Belgium!” gently mocking the viewers who largely supported Morocco.
Youssef Faraj, 40, a teacher and youth mentor at Capital who is overseeing the event, said he was rooting for Morocco but worried they weren’t playing at their best.
“We are outsiders. We are not contenders,” he said, noting that Belgium placed second in the tournament, while Morocco placed 22nd.
The crowd erupted when Ziyech scored from a free kick, but the cheers turned to boos when the goal was disallowed due to offside.
At halftime, Ayoub, 17, a tall high school student draped in a Moroccan flag, said he was very disappointed that Morocco failed to get the goal.
“It was respectless. It was clearly a goal,” she said. “I feel sad.”
“In the second half, we are going to score two goals,” said Ayoub with conviction. He was easily one of the most dedicated and emotional Morocco fans in the audience.
Ayoub’s prediction turned out to be correct, and Morocco won the game 2-0, with the crowd at the youth center cheering.
“We didn’t go to Qatar to show that we were bad. We came to Qatar to show that Africa was there,” she said. May a “small club from Africa” win [against] a great club in Europe”.
As the room quickly grew smaller, Ayoub joined his friends in celebrating, lighting some red and green sparklers for Morocco. The sounds of celebratory car horns could already be heard on the main road outside.
“We are going to say that we are here, to say that Morocco is not Belgium,” Ayoub said as he walked out, a leap in his step and a great whoop.
Mesmaoui said he was happy his 2-1 prediction was close.
“They [Morocco] tried to attack several times. Perseverance is the word of the day. They were very determined.”
For her friend Abajadi, it is also a victory for the Belgo-Moroccans.
“Today Belgium is going to explode,” he said, referring to what an emotional victory for the Moroccans looks like. “In any case, it was a win-win.”