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Morocco is the first African and Arab team to advance to the World Cup semi-finals

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

As we just heard, the World Cup semifinals continue tomorrow when the defending World Cup champions, France, take on the biggest surprise of this year's tournament, Morocco. The Atlas Lions haven't yet lost a match. They're the first Arab and first African team to make it this far. We heard elsewhere in the show from Morocco. And now let's go to France, which has a large Franco Moroccan population and a complicated history between nations. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports from Paris.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Every time Morocco advanced in Qatar, beating Canada, Belgium, Spain, French Moroccans poured into the streets across France to celebrate.

(CHEERING)

BEARDSLEY: The Champs-Elysees in Paris exploded in joy Saturday night when Morocco knocked out Portugal for a slot in the semifinals.

SAMIA CHERKAOUI: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "We are so proud of the Lions today," says Samia Cherkaoui. "God willing, we'll go to the end. But it's hard because we love the French team, too," she says. "May the best win." Many Franco Moroccans are conflicted, including popular actor Jamel Debbouze.

JAMEL DEBBOUZE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "I don't know how to live this event," he said. "It's as if my mother were playing against my father." Ouadhi Dada was born and raised in France and is a prominent news anchor in Casablanca. He says the Moroccan team has brought the world together.

OUADHI DADA: We have behind us African population, Arabic population. All these countries are supporting now Morocco. And you don't have this kind of solidarity in Europe or in South America.

BEARDSLEY: Like Brazilians are not going to support Argentina, he says. Israelis and Palestinians have even come together in their common support for the team. There are thousands of Moroccan Jews in Israel.

DADA: And this is the power of Morocco, you know.

BEARDSLEY: Talk in France of boycotting the World Cup due to Qatar's human rights record is nearly nonexistent now. President Emmanuel Macron will be there at tomorrow's game.

(CROSSTALK)

BEARDSLEY: The airwaves in France are churning with excitement over the game, as well as talk of identity and national allegiance. It's mostly in good fun, but a few on the far right have called Franco Moroccans who don't support the French national team traitors. And they've also warned about potential riots after the match. The Morocco-France game will not be vengeful, says Neila Latrous, head of the political service at France Info Radio.

NEILA LATROUS: And that's a big difference with Algeria.

BEARDSLEY: Morocco's neighbor, Algeria, was a French colony for 130 years and fought a war for its independence. Morocco was a French protectorate for a much shorter time, and the breakup was easier. This matters, says Latrous.

LATROUS: It has actually kind of a consequence on Morocco team. They going into the game not considering that France is a superior country. It's a country with a historical friendship and relationship, but it's just a country.

BEARDSLEY: Though betting odds are on France, no one is discounting Morocco. The team has attracted talent by playing on Moroccan dual nationals' loyalty to their origins, says Mark Owen, a soccer aficionado and journalist at channel France 24 in Paris.

MARK OWEN: They realized back in, say, 2014, even before then, that they could tap into families with talented footballers in countries such as France, Spain, Italy.

BEARDSLEY: One such player is Morocco defender Achraf Hakimi. Born and raised in Spain, he plays professionally for Paris Saint-Germain alongside his close friend, a global soccer superstar.

OWEN: Kylian Mbappe, possibly the most exciting football talent in the world today, and the thought of these two going face to face is incredibly interesting.

BEARDSLEY: The winner of France and Morocco will face Argentina for the World Cup title on Sunday. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.