By MARIAM FAM Associated Press
RABAT, Morocco (AP) — The game was sparsely attended; it was midweek and the outcome wasn’t much in doubt: the Association Sportive des Forces Armees Royales, a powerhouse in women’s soccer here, ended up crushing its Moroccan women’s national professional league opponent 7-0.
Regardless, one young fan in the stands was excited from the get-go.
Wearing her hair in half-up pigtails and dressed in a jersey reading “Morocco” in Arabic, 5-year-old Aliae Benazzouza descended to the pitch to meet the players. A favorite of hers, Fatima Tagnaout, who plays for Morocco’s national women’s team and for the armed forces team known as ASFAR, embraced Aliae and held her hand as they posed for photos. Aliae waved at another player, calling her name. During the game, she would make her way to the front of the stands, pressing against a rail, for a better view.
“I was very happy,” Aliae said. Her mom, Souad El Khorchef, a teacher, said her daughter peppered her with kisses afterward in thanks for taking her to the game and asked to practice soccer. El Khorchef told her that is possible when she’s older.
After years largely in the margins, Moroccan women’s soccer is gaining new ground at home and beyond, capturing the imagination of some girls like Aliae, winning the hearts and minds of more parents, and chipping away at a traditional view of soccer as a men’s game. Morocco’s national team, the Atlas Lionesses, made its debut at the ongoing FIFA Women’s World Cup, the first to qualify from the Arab world, where many are wild for the men’s game.
On Thursday, the Moroccan team celebrated a stunning victory, beating Colombia 1-0 to make it to the knockout round, creating yet more history at the global tournament. Morocco, as the Group H runner-up, will play Group F winner France in Adelaide, Australia, on Tuesday.
“I teach (my daughters) confidence, not fear,” said Idriss Benazzouza, Aliae’s father. “I plant in them the spirit of soccer, the spirit of sports. Sports don’t differentiate between genders.”
Speaking ahead of the start of the Women’s World Cup, he said the Lionesses’ qualification “shows how women’s soccer has progressed” in the North African country, filling him with joy. He added, though, that not everyone he knows shares his enthusiasm due to conservative views or to religious beliefs against women wearing shorts.
The national team’s Women’s World Cup appearance followed their male counterpart’s history making feat as the first African or Arab team to reach the World Cup semifinals. Last year’s run galvanized support from other Arab countries.
Morocco’s 2022 hosting of the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations drew large numbers of spectators and catapulted the country to the upcoming global tournament in Australia and New Zealand. It marked a watershed moment, soccer officials and players say.
“The qualification of the women’s team for the finals at the Africa Cup of Nations, the media momentum and the wide audience that followed … breathed new life into women’s soccer in Morocco,” Khadija Illa, president of the national women’s soccer league, told The Associated Press. “We now see families bring their children, … their daughters, to play soccer.”
The on-the-pitch victories leading to the Women’s World Cup, she said, were the culmination of efforts by the Royal Moroccan Football Federation to develop soccer, including for women. Female players and teams traditionally suffered from neglect here and in the Arab world.
It wasn’t an easy path, Illa said.
“Everything related to women requires struggling for,” she said. “We’re not 100% where we want to be, but we have put sound structures in place.”
Those include hiring Atlas Lionesses’ coach Reynald Pedros and moves in recent years by the Moroccan federation to support women’s clubs with such things as salaries and buses. Financial assistance was part of an agreement announced in 2020 for the growth and professionalization of female soccer; goals included establishing a national under-17 championship and increasing the number of female players.
“There’s no success without financial support,” Illa said. “Everyone played before but they played without enthusiasm. … When they realized that soccer can also become a career, the appetite has increased.” Still, she said, large salary gaps exist between male and female players at Moroccan clubs, adding, “We’re still at the beginning of the road.”
She cited a sports-study program that searches for youthful talent, houses girls who qualify and provides them with schooling and soccer practice. It’s funded by the Royal Moroccan Football Federation and has produced such players as Tagnaout, Illa said.
Bahya El Yahmidi, who oversees women’s soccer at ASFAR, said with more victories, attitudes have been evolving.
“In the beginning, there was such talk as ‘You belong in the home or in the kitchen’ … or girls would wait for their fathers or brothers to leave before they could sneak out to play,” she said. “But later, a brother would come with his sister, a father with his daughter.”
In developing women’s soccer at ASFAR, the club provided players with “financial and moral stability,” which has encouraged more to join, she said.
Atlas Lionesses’ and ASFAR player Ghizlane Chebbak, named player of the tournament in the 2022 Women’s Africa Cup of Nations, is increasingly seeing the star power she and some of her peers are enjoying in the eyes of young fans.
She recalled a girl sobbing uncontrollably, emotional that she encountered Chebbak and other players. That girl, she said, ended up joining ASFAR.
“It made us feel that we have actually made it to the hearts of young children,” Chebbak told the AP.
When she was young, Chebbak would hear neighbors telling her mother not to let her play with the boys. She felt lucky that her family, including her late father who was a soccer player himself, backed her.
“Our efforts and perseverance in the field of soccer haven’t gone in vain; people have understood that we have the right to play this sport,” the 32-year-old said.
She hopes the national team can make Moroccan women’s soccer proud at the World Cup. “We’re highly focused,” she said, ahead of the tournament.
Nouhaila Benzina, who also plays for the national team and ASFAR, said her soccer career has opened up new worlds, helping her meet people from different countries and religions. The 25-year-old never saw her passion for soccer at odds with her modest attire and the Islamic headscarf that she wears on and off the pitch.
Many, she said, depict her as a role model.
“This fills me up with joy and makes me want to work harder to show girls they can achieve great things.”
The Lionesses’ ascent fuels the resolve of players like Hiba Karami, who plays for another local team, Fath Union Sport.
“This has made me work harder, aspire for more, dream,” said the 18-year-old, who hopes one day to play with the senior national team.
The advancement in women’s soccer has made a dream a reality for Karami; last year, she was one of the players representing Morocco in the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in India.
Karami loved soccer from a young age because her older sister played; they practiced together at home and on the beach.
“At the time, not much attention was paid to women’s soccer,” she said. Her parents supported her, and Karami paid little heed to naysayers.
“Some kids or men would say women belonged in the kitchen and weren’t made for soccer,” she said. “I knew that I loved the game and that I will play.”
Her sister encouraged her. So did her extended family, though an aunt cautioned her not to dress like men now that she was playing soccer. Boys in the neighborhood accepted her “because I played better than they did,” she said.
In recent years, women’s soccer has received more attention, Karami said. She was overjoyed to see many people supporting the national team during last year’s Women’s Africa Cup of Nations, where it lost 2-1 to South Africa in the final.
She only wishes that success happened sooner. For her, it’s personal; her sister died.
“I wish she were here to witness my achievements,” Karami said, breaking into tears.
Coach Pedros told reporters ahead of the tournament of the Moroccan team’s Women’s World Cup ambitions.
“We’re going there to try and cause an upset, to get into the second round,” he said. “We know we’re the underdog in this group (with Germany, Colombia and South Korea), but that doesn’t stop us making things difficult for the other teams.”
He said having a Moroccan professional championship for women was a promising start “but we need to work in the clubs and in the national team to help Moroccan women’s soccer progress.”
In parts of the Middle East and North Africa, women’s soccer can be shackled by lack of financing or conservative attitudes in some areas, while making new pushes in others when there are official efforts to develop the game.
Arijana Demirovic, head of Women’s Football Development at FIFA, said that in the last three years, the international federation worked extensively with member associations in the MENA region to strengthen overall development of women’s soccer.
FIFA, she said, supported Kuwait, Libya, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in determining long-term strategies for women’s soccer while also working on league development and capacity-building programs in Jordan, Iraq, Oman and Tunisia.
“Despite cultural challenges, member associations have been very committed in creating and maintaining access and opportunities for the girls to join the game in the right environment and conditions,” she said. She expects these regional efforts to be bolstered by Morocco’s participation in the Women’s World Cup.
Illa shares that optimism.
“Nothing is impossible,” she said. “If they work and plan, other teams can make it too. Why not have four or five Arab teams competing in the World Cup?”
In Arab cities, where months ago many took pride in the Moroccan men’s team World Cup performance, attitudes vary.
In Gaza, ruled by the militant Hamas group, shopkeeper Ahmed Qoffa said he rooted for Morocco’s men’s team but takes issue with female players wearing shorts.
“Culture and religion do not prohibit sports,” he said. “If it is within the legal, cultural and societal limits, then there is no problem.”
Elsewhere in the region, many, including some serious soccer fans, were unaware shortly before the start of the Women’s World Cup, of the Atlas Lionesses’ breakthrough.
“They always give attention to men’s sports more than women’s, especially in our countries,” said Hadeel Sleiman. She is a fan from Lebanon.
In Egypt, 61-year-old Hassan Yousef argued that soccer “is a rough game that is not at all fit for women,” adding he wouldn’t enjoy watching women play.
Dr. Husam Mokhtar, a Libyan in Egypt, said he doubts women’s soccer can become as popular as men’s. “We support any Arab country making it to the World Cup,” he said, but added that “soccer is a men’s game.”
His 13-year-old daughter, Miral, disagreed. “Everyone should do what they want to do,” she said. “Every sport should be played by everyone.”
Back in Morocco, Fath Union Sport players practiced vigorously on a recent day.
Among them was 11-year-old Inass Belattar, who once thought only boys could play soccer because she had never seen girls playing on the street. That changed as she watched a women’s team compete at a stadium. She was hooked.
She dreams of a career as a soccer player, or a coach, but also an engineer.
“Girls can do anything,” she said. “I want to play abroad and be famous around the world.”
This story, which originally moved on July 10, is being updated with Moroccan women’s national team making it to the knockout round at the Women’s World Cup.
Associated Press journalists Wafaa Shurafa in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, Graham Dunbar in Geneva, Kareem Chehayeb in Beirut and Jerome Pugmire in Paris contributed.