Morocco’s women’s team has already won

Khadija Rmichi’s road to the Women’s World Cup started on a bicycle.

Rmichi, a goalkeeper, grew up in Khouribga, a mining town in central Morocco. As a girl, she tried many sports, including basketball, but was always bored with them. She was often drawn instead to football played by boys on the street. Sometimes she just enjoyed watching the games. Many days she couldn’t help but join in, even when she knew it would mean trouble.

“It was considered shameful to play with boys,” Rmichi, now 33, said in an interview in April. “My older brother would beat me and drag me home and I would just go back to the streets to play when I had a chance.”

A local coach liked her spirit. He told Rmichi that if she could find enough girls to form a team, he would coach them. So she hopped on a bike and toured Khouribga’s side streets and playgrounds, looking for teammates. When necessary, Rmichi said, she would take her sales pitch directly into the girls’ homes and help persuade reluctant parents and families to let them play.

“I tried to get into other sports,” she said, “but I just wanted to play soccer.”

One of eight first-time qualifiers in the Women’s World Cup field, Morocco can’t win a match playing in a group that includes a former champion (Germany), an Asian regular (South Korea) and the second-best team in South America (Colombia).

But the fact that Morocco is playing in this tournament, which began Thursday in Australia and New Zealand, and that its women’s team exists at all, serves as an inspiration and a measurable source of pride at home and abroad.

Morocco is the first women’s World Cup qualifier from North Africa and the first from a majority Arab nation. Yet its squad was little known to most Moroccans before it hosted the event that served as the continent’s World Cup qualifier on home soil last July. As it posted victory after victory, but the country’s stadiums began to fill with fansmany of them are seeing the team play for the first time.

In a country where football is revered but where interest in the women’s game is a new phenomenon, this success raised the team’s profile. “They showed us that they can fill stadiums and make Moroccans happy,” said the team’s French coach, Reynald Pedros. “They did it on the African stage. Now we hope to do the same on the international stage.”

Morocco’s presence in Australia this month is testament to the efforts to develop women’s football in the country through public investment and a concerted effort to unearth talent not only in cities such as Rabat and Casablanca, but also from the large Moroccan diaspora in France, Spain, Great Britain and the Netherlands.

That diversity was on display on a cold but joyous evening earlier this year in Prague, where the team had come to face the Czech Republic in a pre-World Cup exhibition match. During the evening training, Pedros gave instructions to the group in French, and the players shouted commands and encouraged each other in a mixture of Arabic, French and English. An interpreter was standing by the field in case he was needed. For most of the practice, he wasn’t: Most of the players had by then established ways to communicate, even when they didn’t share a common language.

Their different paths were sometimes bound by similar threads. Sofia Bouftini, a 21-year-old who grew up in Morocco, initially faced opposition from her family when she expressed an interest in taking soccer more seriously. Like Rmichi, she had fallen in love with the sport, playing against boys while longing to be part of a real team.

“My grandmother spoke for me and convinced my father,” she said. “My father was against it.” He eventually gave in, Bouftini said, when he realized how talented she was.

In his office this spring, Pedros, 51, cautioned that expectations for his team should remain realistic. The stakes for his side, a first-time qualifier for women’s football’s biggest championship, are not the same as for the men’s team, which won admirers far and wide in December when it became the first African side to progress to the semi-finals.

Matching that performance shouldn’t be the benchmark this month, Pedros said. “Comparing them to the boys,” he said of his players, “is not a good thing.”

Morocco’s men had participated in international tournaments many times, he pointed out, before embarking on the amazing run in Qatar that brought cheers at home and praise almost everywhere else. The stars on the men’s team are employed by some of Europe’s best clubs and have long ago learned to perform on football’s biggest stages. For the women, he said, it will all be new. Success will be marked in smaller increments. “There won’t be 20,000 Moroccan supporters in the stadiums in Australia,” he said.

Playing the long game is something the country’s sports leaders seem to recognise. At the sprawling Mohammed VI Football Complex in Salé, close to Morocco’s capital, Rabat, ultra-modern facilities were built in 2009 where the new generations of footballers are groomed to become tomorrow’s champions.

But for those who started before such facilities were available, the road to elite football was not always easy. For the players who joined the team after growing up in Europe, the choice of Morocco was a complex question of opportunity and identity. But even those who had better opportunities to learn the game and train in the European countries where they grew up acknowledged that they often faced similar opposition from their families.

Nesryne El Chad, a 20-year-old central defender, grew up in Saint-Étienne, France, a city full of football. The daughter of Moroccan immigrants, she learned the game against boys at recess when she was in school. When her family went to Morocco for summer vacation, she said she wanted to buy a ball from a store and play on the beach.

When she was 12, her parents realized she might be talented enough to have a future in football, so her mother enrolled her in a physical education program and arranged for her to be relieved of some of the household chores her siblings had to do so she could rest on Sundays before matches. Her father, a black belt in karate, initially resisted the idea of ​​a soccer-focused future for Nesryne — until, she said, his own mother told him to let her play. He ended up taking her to every practice and every game, and is now one of her most ardent supporters.

It was never a question, she said, which country’s colors she would wear if given the chance.

“I was raised to feel Moroccan,” she said. “I always wanted to play for Morocco.”

A few hours inside the Ledni Stadium in Chomutov, close to the Czech border with Germany, showed both how infectious Morocco’s success has become for fans, at home and abroad, and how far the team still has to go.

The crowd that had braved the cold to watch Morocco’s friendly in April were mostly Czechs, including a group of loud, drunken hockey fans who had wasted 30 minutes of the game after leaving another event nearby. But there were also small pockets of Moroccans – mostly foreigners, some of whom had traveled more than 100 miles to attend. They were filled with purpose and belonging, drawn by an urge to express love for the country of their birth and by the need to share that feeling with others who would understand. Gender didn’t matter much to them.

“For me, girls or boys, it’s the same,” said Kamal Jabeur, 59, who had come about 190 miles from the city of Brno. “We came here because we wanted the girls not to feel alone.”

Jabeur remained seated in his seat throughout the match, cheering and shouting “Dima Maghrib” – Always Morocco. His enthusiasm, while welcome, only did so much: Morocco lost to a Czech team that failed to qualify for the World Cup. A few days later it did the same against Romania, another non-qualifier, 1–0 in Bucharest. Harder nights may lie ahead.

On Monday, Morocco opens its first World Cup with its toughest test yet: a date against Germany, one of the tournament favourites, in Melbourne. The players know their countrymen and their families, wherever they are, will be watching.

El Chad, the central defender, said her grandfather has made a habit of watching all her games from a favorite cafe back in Morocco, where he likes to brag to his friends and neighbors about his grandson.

El Chad knows the joy games like the ones she’ll be playing this month can bring. She hurt a foot jumping for joy while watching one of Morocco’s victories in the men’s World Cup on television. This month it’s her team’s turn. She hopes to inspire similar feelings, though not similar injuries, regardless of the outcome.

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