The Role of Football in Preserving National Identity in the Arab World

Eman Demerdash, Cairo University



Football is often politicized and used as a form of social or political movement, or even as an unconventional civil society actor, with some football clubs directly reflecting their fans’ local or national demands. This affiliation makes football far more than just a game; it is part of people’s daily lives and a space to express political, social, and cultural identities. In Morocco, popular football clubs played a significant historical role in national liberation movements, becoming the voice of people struggling against colonial rule. Similarly, in Palestine, football represents an important space to gain attention to the ongoing conflict.

Morocco’s football, since its foundation, was part of the independence movement, becoming a space for Moroccans to struggle against French occupation. In the Palestinian case, football became a space for displays of Palestinian identity, which occupiers attempt to control by dominating or restricting Palestinian football, its teams, and its players. This paper argues that football was used in both contexts as a tool to preserve national identity against occupiers, and as a means towards gaining independence.

The Historical Importance of Football Clubs in Morocco

Morocco was colonized by both Spain and France and was divided between them from 1912 until the country’s independence in March 1956. In 1912, the treaty of Fez claimed Morocco as a French protectorate administered by a French Resident-General, while its coast came under Spain’s administration. All sports entities, including the Moroccan Sports Union, were established and controlled by the French occupation. The one exception was FC Maghreb Al Aksa, created in 1919 in Tangier, which competed in the Spanish league and was led by a group of nationalists fighting Spanish occupation in the north of the country. It is considered the first fully Moroccan football team; even though it competed outside of Morocco, its players were Moroccans demanding liberation. In 1956, after Morocco gained independence, the club ceased to exist, having achieved its goal of national liberation.[1]

The first Moroccan football club established in Morocco by Moroccans was Wydad Athletic Club (WAC), which started as a water polo club but then added a football branch in 1939. The club was operated by nationalists, including Mohamed Ben Galon.[2] With ten Moroccan players and only one European, WAC was the first club to have a majority of Moroccans on the team. WAC became one of the most important clubs in the liberation movement of Morocco, alongside Raja Club Athletic, the other historic club. Under occupation, it was not easy for Moroccans to gather in public places, and WAC football matches became a legal reason for people to gather. The assembled fans used the matches to express themselves and to chant anti-French political slogans. Wydad Athletic Club came to be known as Wydad El Umma, or national community, because it was, and still is, a place to unite Moroccans for national goals.[3]

Wydad’s success as a team became a growing problem for the colonizers because it kept winning titles, making it increasingly popular among Moroccans. When the team traveled to play in Algeria and distributed patriotic leaflets, the players were welcomed as representatives of Moroccans fighting for freedom. The French authorities, concerned by the popularity of these nationalist gatherings, positioned tanks and military personnel outside the stadiums to frighten fans, and, in a 1953 uprising, the French army shot, injured, and arrested several WAC players.[4] Even though French occupiers failed to prove WAC’s direct involvement in the liberation movement, the club was suspended for a year in 1944.[5] WAC was not alone in the politicization of football in the country; many other clubs similarly supported the liberation movement and deliberately included “Morocco” in their names to reflect their national identity.

Importance of Palestinian Football

Football in Palestine was introduced before the occupation by missionary schools established throughout the country in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Official football clubs were introduced in 1908 by Rawdat al-Ma‘aref and St. George’s School, with regional integration between Palestinian and Lebanese teams to help develop the sport in both countries. Football became popular in big cities like Jerusalem, Jaffa, and Haifa, with teams playing in the streets in worn-out clothes.[6]

In the 1920s, several football clubs were established in Palestine under British Mandate authority, including the Jerusalem Sports Club and those associated with the British police, air force, and army. Football quickly became the main sporting competition in the country.[7] In 1948, following the Israeli occupation of Palestine, Jewish clubs playing in Europe came to Palestine to compete against Jewish clubs, raising Zionist flags.[8]

Starting in 1924, the leadership of the Maccabi athletic organization failed to gain international membership in the International Amateur Athletic Federation because it did not represent Arab, British, and Jewish athletes in Palestine. For membership, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) required that the state’s federation make the application. To join FIFA, the Jewish athletic organizations had to use the name of Palestine and were forced to form the Palestinian Football Association (PFA). In 1928, the inaugural meeting took place between fourteen Zionist representatives and only one Arab representative. FIFA admitted PFA in 1929, and, in the first few years, Arab teams participated in the competitions.[9]

Arab football clubs played an important role in the emerging struggle for Palestinian national identity. Arab clubs were only allowed to play in the second-tier league, which eventually pushed them to form a parallel association called the Arab Palestinian Sports Federation (APSF). From then on, Palestine had two parallel leagues, one for Jewish clubs, and the other for Arab clubs. This situation continued until 1948 and the War of Independence or Al Nakbah. After 1948, and the displacement of Palestinians, the Arab football league collapsed, and a new Palestinian football federation was formed in 1952. It was reconstituted ten years later as the Palestinian Football Association (PFA). FIFA gave the PFA provisional membership in 1995, and after the creation of the Palestinian Authority, the newly established PFA was accepted as a member in 1998.[10]

After being recognized by FIFA, Palestine’s national team played under the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in friendly matches with Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria. The team also played in the World Cup qualifiers in 2002. In the 2006 qualifiers, however, the Israeli government refused to issue exit visas or travel permits for half the team, an act that was repeated in 2007 and 2008, preventing them from playing fixtures and representing their country abroad. The denial of travel permits was only one of a range of systematic obstacles Israeli authorities instituted against the development of Palestinian football. The Israelis were concerned that a Palestinian national football team would become a global voice against their occupation. After another restriction in 2012, FIFA decided to intervene to solve the travel permit issue for the Palestinian national team.[11]

Israeli travel restrictions do not only affect Palestinian football abroad but also interrupt the domestic development of the game. Palestine has two parallel leagues, one in the West Bank and the other in Gaza, that cannot play against each other as a result of Israeli travel restrictions. These leagues suffer from further interruption as a result of Israeli violence, which put both the players and their fans in danger.[12] In 2009, many particularly deadly incidents occurred. In January, the Israeli military killed three players in Gaza, Ayman Alkurd, Shadi Sbakhe, and Wajeh Moshtaha. Two months later, 20-year-old Saji Darwish was shot by an Israeli sniper near Ramallah, then, in July, the national team player Mahmoud Sarsak was arrested and tortured for three years. After gaining his freedom, he faced major health problems that made it impossible for him to play football again. In 2014, Jawhar Nasser Jawhar and Adam Abd Al-Raouf Halabiya, two teenage players, were deliberately shot in the leg.[13]

Remarkably, in 2015 and 2019, the Palestinian national team participated in Asia Football Cup tournaments, which helped it pass the Israeli football team in the FIFA rankings.[14] The Palestinian national team also succeeded in overcoming some of the Israeli restrictions by qualifying for the AFC Asian Cup 2023, their third qualification in a row. From failing to qualify because of travel restrictions in 2007 to qualifying without conceding a goal in three consecutive matches, the team defeated Mongolia, Yemen, and the Philippines.[15]

The Israeli authorities aimed to be the only representatives of Palestinian football, but they failed. Palestinians use football as a means of expressing their identity and claiming rights to their land. They have insisted on forming a football federation that competes internationally to raise the Palestinian flag and raise awareness about their long-lasting conflict. Even when Israeli restrictions stop them from playing, Palestinians use this as an opportunity to demonstrate this oppression to the world. In the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, Arab and, some, European fans waved the Palestinian flag and chanted for Palestine. The Palestinian flag has appeared in matches for many years, but not with the same visibility that occurred during the World Cup in Qatar, which was a result of the tournament being played in an Arab country.


Morocco strategically used football in the fight against French occupation. Since football was introduced by French colonists, nationalist movements used this very sport against their occupiers, forming nationalist-oriented football clubs and gathering in stadiums to demand freedom. In the Palestinian case, British and Zionist occupiers tried to control Palestinian football and to imbue the game with a Zionist identity, but Palestinians managed to create their own recognized football federation, to play football with Arab Palestinian identity, and overcome restrictions to play for their national team. To this day, Palestinians express their national identity through football.

[1] Salah Al-Komari, “Clubs born in the womb of national resistance” [in Arabic], SNRT News, November 18, 2021,

[2] Rashid Mahmoudy, “Wydad El Umma.. May 8, the date of the founding of the Ahl Al-Watan team” [in Arabic], Aldar, May 9, 2022,

[3] Anis Al-Arqouby, “Morocco: Sports clubs.. the cradle of the national movement against colonialism” [in Arabic], Noon Post, November 27, 2019,

[4] Aboutaib Ahmed, “Football… the cradle of national resistance against colonialism” [in Arabic], Manara, November 17, 2021,

[5] Al-Komari, “Clubs born from the womb of national resistance.”

[6] Issam Khalidi, “Sports and Aspirations: Football in Palestine, 1900–1948,” Jerusalem Quarterly 58 (2014): 74–88.

[7] See Rabaia’s essay in this collection.

[8] Khalidi, “Sports and Aspirations.”

[9] Khalidi, “Sports and Aspirations.”

[10] Jon Dart, “Palestinian Football and National Identity under Occupation,” Managing Sport and Leisure 25, no. 1–2 (2020): 21–36.

[11] Dart, “Palestinian Football and National Identity under Occupation.”

[12] Dart, “Palestinian Football and National Identity under Occupation.”

[13] Ramzy Baroud, “Palestinian Sporting Achievements are Political Acts,” Arab News, June 20, 2022,

[14] Dart, “Palestinian Football and National Identity under Occupation.”

[15] Baroud, “Palestinian Sporting Achievements are Political Acts.”