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Morocco's World Cup success energizes Arab fans

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The World Cup in Qatar has paused for a couple of days, which helps the players and maybe also fans who get a break after a string of exciting matches, especially on Tuesday, when Morocco became the first Arab nation to make it to a World Cup quarterfinals. NPR's Tom Goldman reports from Doha.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Excitement among Arab fans at this first Middle East World Cup has been building from the start. There was the early jolt of Saudi Arabia's stunning win over soccer royalty Argentina. Then, as the Saudis faded, Morocco took the baton - finished first in its group and, in Tuesday's knockout round, knocked out Spain, ranked seventh in the world. It pushed the Atlas Lions into uncharted territory - the quarterfinals. Last night, the roaring and horn-honking had subsided in Doha but not the pride. In the city's famous labyrinthine market Souq Waqif, 25-year-old Saudi Faisal al-Kattabi (ph) was wrapped in a red Moroccan flag.

FAISAL AL-KATTABI: Morocco is - the country's Arabic, and Tunisian is Arabic and Saudi Arabic. And we support us. We are all together.

GOLDMAN: Bilal Lkhawaja, a Palestinian Jordanian, was wandering the Souq with his brother and their 12-year-old sons. The four of them were wearing Team Morocco T-shirts and flags. Lkhawaja said the outpouring of pride stems in part from having much of the world usually look at them, sporting and otherwise, as less capable because they're from Arab countries. He says World Cup success helps battle those misperceptions.

BILAL LKHAWAJA: Tell me, do you know or do you hear Arab team get World Cup? No. Did you know the Arab Team get four - gold or silver or bronze? No. So that's why we try to change this story through all the Arab team.

GOLDMAN: As they posed for a photo, they unfurled a Palestinian flag, a flag that's been ubiquitous at this World Cup in the stands and on the field. A jubilant Moroccan team displayed it after the win over Spain. FIFA, soccer's international governing body, has not officially answered questions about what might appear to be a double standard. Those wearing rainbow colors to support LGBTQ communities or sporting messages criticizing Iran's government have met resistance by World Cup organizers. Those carrying the Palestinian flag, which some interpret as a similar type of political statement, have not. Lkhawaja simply says he's very happy it's happening, bringing attention, at this World Cup, to Palestinians' quest for rights and statehood and, perhaps, he said, the next World Cup, played in North America.

LKHAWAJA: This is good. Maybe next time American ask exactly what's this? Next time, maybe Mexico.

GOLDMAN: Lkhawaja repeatedly said he didn't want to get into politics, but it's been impossible at this Middle East World Cup to ignore one of the region's most intractable political issues - Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories. It's played out largely on social media, with Israeli reporters covering the tournament, posting videos of them being rebuffed by Arab fans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We are from Israel.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Huh?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Israel.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Israel?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yes.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hey, new friends, what? We have peace.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Palestinian.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: But we have peace, huh? Huh? Peace.

GOLDMAN: It's a popular assumption that while governments stoke hostility, people get along. In Doha, though, it's been the opposite. Despite Israel signing new agreements with Arab countries, including Morocco, a well of mistrust is evident at this World Cup, where the slogan is football unites the world.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Doha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.