First World Cup participation for The Atlas Lionesses (Photo: Fifa.com).
First World Cup participation for The Atlas Lionesses (Photo: Fifa.com).

Morocco’s womens team breaking through

Morocco’s maiden appearance at the Women’s World Cup: more than history being made?

Moroccan Football has been living over the sky this last year. After the U17 women’s team made their first ever World Cup appearance, the men’s national team’s journey at the 2022 Qatar World Cup is one football fans won’t forget anytime soon. In the event’s group stage matches, the Atlas Lions started off strong after beating both Belgium and Canada and drawing with Croatia, the 2018 World Cup finalists.

The adventure did not stop here as Morocco set an upset by ending both Spain’s (0-0, 3-0 on penalties) and Portugal’s (1-0) runs at the World Cup only to fall short in the semi-final against the then World champions, France. The Moroccan national team ended the tournament in fourth place in a historical achievement as they became the first Arab and African team to reach the World Cup’s semi-final stage.

So far, so good. We’d think that this is how far the story goes… but then, we remember that the women’s team is also making history. In July 2022, Morocco, the hosts of the fourteenth edition of the African Cup of Nations (CAN), defied all expectations as they finished runners-up to South Africa, the only side to beat them, 2-1 in the final. Their reward was their debut qualification for the FIFA Women’s World Cup™. Again, a first-timer for the Arab World.

In this article, we dig into the history of women’s football in Morocco to better understand how this achievement was made possible.

How did it all start?

Carl Sagan once said “You have to know the past to understand the present”. Finding out about the history of any event helps better understand its current situation. And this is particularly true in the case of Women’s Football in Morocco. Before reaching the World Cup, the Atlas Lionesses had to face, and break, many obstacles.

First of these obstacles is the weight of religion, social norms and traditions in the country. Since its independence, Morocco has been a constitutional monarchy, with its rights governed by Islamic law. Women have been placed under the exclusive authority of their husbands. And, since football in the country has always been considered a men’s sport, women weren’t welcomed, encouraged or even allowed to play, the federation prioritized the men’s teams and neglected their female counterparts. Media did not equally cover the events, investors weren’t keen on “wasting their money” in the women’s game, and fans, too, looked at women’s football as a “less entertaining” and “unacceptable” sport. For a girl to play football, she would have to accept the stereotypes that come with it.

As per the available -yet limited- resources and archives, the Moroccan women’s national team’s first official participation dates back to the fifth of July 1998 as they drew against South Africa. There are no traces that indicate that girls and women played football before the late 1990s. As years have passed, and due to the lack of investment, the women’s game struggled to develop. Iconic figures such as Lamia Boumehdi were needed to create the change.

  • Lamia Boumehdi: a pioneer

Born in 1983 in Casablanca, Lamia’s first encounter with football was around her house, in the neighborhood. She kept playing with boys, until, one day, she convinced her mother of co-creating a girls’ team called Inate Berrechid. It was the first women’s team in the Kingdom. She was part of the first ever women’s national team who participated in the Africa Cup of Nations tournament in 1998. Her passion for the game led her to Europe where she had spells with teams in Norway and Italy as well as a trial with PSG in 2003.

After forcefully retiring in 2009 due to injury, Lamia’s journey in football continued as she started coaching women’s teams in her country. Teams were competing in a league yet to be professionalized.

New Era for the Women’s Team:

Grouped with two-time champions Germany, Colombia and Republic of Korea, Morocco’s World Cup journey won’t be a walk in the park, but they’re allowed to dream of making it past the knockout stages. The men’s team did it, so why couldn’t they?

Morocco’s qualification to the 2023 Women’s World Cup wasn’t just a fairytale sporting moment. It was the result of the Royal Moroccan Football Federation’s (FRMF) deliberate efforts to turn Morocco into a dominant footballing force.

  • The report of the Moroccan Central Commission for women’s football and futsal:

Conscious of the role played by football in closing the gender gap and emancipating women in the country, the officials of football have decided to give the women’s game the recognition it deserves. A women’s football national center was created to, first, scout, then develop young talented footballers (aged under 18) and who will form the national team in the future.

  • The Marshall Plan: the road into professionalism

In August 2020, the FRMF implemented the “Marshall Plan”, a four-year plan to invest in and develop women’s football with a clear objective: increase the number of registered female footballers by five by the end of 2024. The appointments of Kelly Lindsey, the former USWNT defender, in 2020 as the Women’s football director and Head coach, and Reynald Pedros, the Women’s Champions League winner with Olympique Lyonnais, in 2021, as the replacement of Lindsey as the Women’s National team head coach only confirm the FRMF’s ambitions. Its President, Fouzi Lekjaa, understood that the promotion of women’s football is key to the development of the whole football structure.

The plan’s vision was divided into three main parts: funding, infrastructure and competitions. For example, each women’s club will be entitled to funding of up to $130,000 for the top-flight league clubs and $86,000 for the second division to remunerate players and technical staff on a monthly basis. With this new move, Morocco became the only country in the world to have two tiers of professional women’s football, including access to world-class complexes.

A sociological analysis

  • A migration success story

Since Morocco’s independence from France in 1956, the country has evolved into one of the prime source countries of labor migrants to Europe. France, Belgium, Italy, and Spain are often the go-to destinations for the Moroccan people. Migration is considered as an important socio-economic process and has thus intrinsically influenced the country’s development and the livelihoods of the migrants and their families. What migration also influenced is football. Many players who were foreign born, finally opted to play for their parent’s home country, Morocco. Having Moroccan parents, the world-class player, Achraf Hakimi, born and raised in Spain, decided to represent the Lions instead of La Roja.

The women’s team has recently also benefited from the binational players. Prior to the World Cup, Reynald Pedros, announced a list of 26 players to take part in the preparation phase. Out of these 26 players, only 11 are local players while 17 are playing in different European and Asian teams. From Rosella Ayane in Tottenham Hotspur (England), passing by Salma Amani in Metz and Anissa Lahmari in Guingamp (France), to Elodie Nakkach in Servette (Switzerland) and Yasmin Mrabet in Levante Las Palmas (Spain), Pedros justifies his choice of counting on expats all while not neglecting the local players as “necessary to increase Morocco’s chances”.

  • Impact on the Arab World & youth girls there

As well as making history for themselves at the upcoming World Cup, Ghizlaine Chebbak, Morocco’s emblematic captain, and teammates will be making an even bigger impact on girls in the Middle East. Football in the region has always been considered a hobby or a second “job” that cannot replace a woman’s socially impregnated priorities: marrying, founding a family, working, etc. The Lionesses’ upcoming adventure at the world’s highest stage, if properly promoted, might shake up tradition: young girls’ participation might increase and some might even hope of a professional career in football.

Thinking points

Having overcome great obstacles, the women’s game in Morocco can look to the future with a good deal of optimism.

As we look back at the game’s history, here’s what comes to mind:

  • Having come this far, what’s next for Moroccan football?
  • How is the legacy of this historical participation going to be measured?
  • What’s in it for the neighboring countries? Will Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria copy Morocco’s development work?

Find out more

Learn about Moroccan women’s football here. 

Books:

1-     Girl Power – 150 ans de football au féminin by Hubert Artus, Calmann Lévy, 2022

2-     Book in Arabic : كرة القدم النسائية – التاريخ وسبل تطويرها عربيّاً by Riyan Al Jidani, Hamaleel, 2019

Online articles:

https://www.cafonline.com/news-center/news/morocco-signs-convention-to-uplift-women-s-football

https://www.fifa.com/fifaplus/en/articles/morocco-womens-world-cup-2023-fixtures-coach-key-players

https://abcnews.go.com/Sports/wireStory/moroccos-historic-womens-world-cup-debut-inspires-girls-100998085

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First World Cup participation for The Atlas Lionesses (Photo: Fifa.com).
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