Morocco and Portugal, rivals in the World Cup, fought a battle that gave rise to the legend of Sebastianism


With a meeting scheduled for this Saturday (10), at 12h, in the quarterfinals of the Qatar Cup, Portugal and Morocco were once rivals, but on the battlefields.

The Arab kingdom was responsible for the end of a dynasty and the birth of the greatest of Portuguese myths, Sebastianism, which also landed in Brazil.

It all started in 1574. Portugal, an expansionist Catholic empire commanded by the young Dom Sebastião (1557-1578), who had taken the throne at age 14, sought to regain its lost prestige in the Arab world.

Years before, in 1541, the Portuguese had been expelled from Morocco by a large army commanded by Mohamed Ech-Cheikh, who would become sultan of that kingdom.

Dead in 1552, Ech-Sheik was succeeded by Mulai Abdallah El-Ghalib. This one, died in 1574.

The kingdom, then, is assumed by his eldest son, Mohammed El-Moutaouakil, but the tradition of succession of the Moroccan crown said that the throne should be occupied by the brothers of the deceased commander before it could fall to any son.

Bolstered by this, Mulai Abdelmalek, older brother of the dead supreme chief, took action. In 1576, supported by the Ottomans, he moved armies to Marrakech, the capital of the kingdom, to depose his nephew, who fled.

Portugal saw an opportunity there. A crisis in the Moroccan royal family was an invitation for the Iberian country to return to North Africa and avenge the defeat suffered almost three decades ago.

Deposed, Mohammed sought help in Spain, but out of fear, King Felipe II preferred not to act directly.

“It was then that the former Moroccan commander went to ask for help from Portugal, which, in exchange for power in the African country, soon accepted”, says Ana Paula Megiani, deputy director of the Faculty of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences at USP (University of Sao Paulo).

Author of the book “1580: Portugal, a Retrospective” (ed. Tinta da China, 2019), in which she makes a retrospective of the last Portuguese tour on Arab soil, the Iberian history teacher says that Dom Sebastião was dazzled by Mohammed’s promises.

In exchange for military aid, the Moroccan would have promised land, which would let the Portuguese crown preach the Christian faith throughout the region and, finally, the coronation of Sebastião as emperor of Morocco.

Soon, Portugal prepared for battle. “It was a crusade of faith. Portugal wanted to take Christianity to the Arab world at all costs, resuming its influence in the region,” says Leonardo Trevisan, historian and professor of the international relations course at ESPM.

In July 1578, the Lusitanian ships left for Morocco. There were 500, carrying at least 15,000 men.

In the country declared enemy, the Portuguese marched on foot towards the capital. After two days walking, the military leadership, led by Dom Sebastião, decided to return to the ships, but it was too late. The men spent days in the desert. Hunger and dehydration exhausted them.

On August 4, they reached Alcácer-Quibir, the first and last Moroccan resistance. More numerous, with at least 50 thousand men, the local army soon attacked.

The Portuguese had no chance and in a few hours almost everyone was dead, including Dom Sebastião. The other two Moroccan kings, the deposed and the conqueror, were also killed. The episode became known as the battle of the Three Kings or the battle of Alcácer-Quibir.

Sebastianism is born

The Portuguese defeat needed an explanation. Its army had been humiliated, its emperor killed and many of its nobles kidnapped by Moroccan forces, who demanded a considerable amount of gold and silver to free them.

“It was then that the legend arose that, by paying for the kidnapped nobles, Portugal would also receive Dom Sebastião back. As his body was never found, many believed”, says Trevisan, from ESPM.

The myth of Sebastianism, the messianic return of the emperor who not everyone believed to be dead, spread and gained strength during the complicated period entered by the Portuguese kingdom with his departure.

Sebastião had no children, so the crown passed to his uncle, Cardinal Dom Henrique, the last member of the Avis dynasty. Very old, the soon-to-be king died within two years.

Thus, in 1580, Portugal, an empire that became poor by handing over its riches to Morocco and without successors to the throne, was annexed to Spain, with Felipe II as its sovereign.

Sebastianism gained a lot of strength in this period, called the Iberian Union. Portuguese citizens did not accept the submission of the empire, which had always been a great power.

Sixty years passed until the independence of the kingdom was restored by Dom João, Duke of Bragança, acclaimed Dom João 6º, King of Portugal.

“At the time, Sebastianism was already in the Portuguese mind. It wasn’t just a question of the return of their former emperor, but a permanent desire for salvation. Whenever Portugal was in trouble, it was Dom Sebastião that they called”, says Megiani, from USP.

Together with the Portuguese court, the belief landed in Brazil. It became an oral tradition in the Northeast and rocked many separatist guerrillas in Tupiniquim lands.

Today, the belief is stronger in the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park. There, it is believed that Dom Sebastião rides an ox and appears to protect residents from danger.

“The truth is that Sebastianism is the portrait of Latin American societies. We are always waiting for a savior”, says Trevisan. “We live on the glories of the past and we want to repeat, in any case, that cycle. And that has a lot to do with sport.”

“After the Portuguese defeat in Morocco, Spain started to exercise great influence in the region. It is interesting that the Arabs defeated the Spaniards in the round of 16 and face the Portuguese now. It’s all history”, he completes.

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