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Could Morocco jump-start the women's game in the Arab world?

John Duerden
August 30, 2022

Euro 2022 may go down as a turning point, attracting record crowds. Less noticed beyond Africa was WAFCON, which also set attendance records. Now hosts Morocco are on the verge of making more footballing history.

Ghizlane Chebbak carries a large Moroccan flag
By reaching the semifinals of WAFCON Ghizlane Chebbak's Moroccans qualified for next year's World CupImage: Gavin Barker/empics/picture alliance

Despite the recent upturn in interest in the women's game, so far, no Arab nation has ever managed to make an impact on the international stage. However, this could be about to change with Morocco set to become the first Arab country to appear at the Women's World Cup – in Australia and New Zealand next July and August. 

"This is just the beginning for women's football here," said the Atlas Lionesses' star striker Ghizlane Chebbak shortly after Morocco qualified by clinching a place in the last four at this summer'sWomen's Africa Cup of Nations (WAFCON). "We have come a long way but there is still a long way to go."

Lagging behind

It was a breakthrough for a nation in a region that has been playing catch up due to the historical reluctance of national football associations and governments to get behind the women's game. 

"It has to do with the Arab world's sociocultural context, and the acceptable norms within, whose confines women are supposed to function," Susan Shalabi, vice-president of the Palestine Football Association told DW. 

"Football has always been viewed until very recently as a rough, masculine sport. Girls were not encouraged to play football," added Shalabi, who is one of the few women in the Arab world who holds a senior executive position in the game.

While Chebbak, whose father Larbi was a celebrated Moroccan international, grew up with a ready-made pathway into the game, others, like her less-famous compatriot, Rania Harrara, face a much rockier road. Determined to play the game even though her school didn't have a girl's program, Harrara forced her way onto the boys' team. 

Linda Maserame Motlhalo of South Africa carries the ball
The South Africans proved to strong for the Moroccans, beating the hosts 2-1 in the finalImage: Ryan Wilkisky/empics/picture alliance

"Persevering through misogynistic slurs and fighting for my position on my school's soccer team is one of my proudest and most valued achievements," she said. "While I won and deserved my spot, the slurs never stopped."

Harrara, now 18, is working to make it easier for girls in her hometown to get started in football. In 2016, she set up the Association de Football Feminin Casablancais, an organization that gives young Moroccan females the chance to play the game they love. 

Lack of investment

Even for those with talent, there has long been few opportunities to forge a career as many football federations were slow to invest time and money into the women's game. 

"A lack of support from their federations means inactivity in the domestic leagues," Agnes Amondi, a writer with "Her Football Hub" and "Africa New Media Group" told DW. 

Even when there have been signs of success, there were no foundations to build upon.  

"In 2016, Egypt qualified for WAFCON for the first time since 1998 but after they were knocked out, everything came to a standstill, and they were then even unranked by FIFA.” 

Enter Morocco 

In July, though, Morocco showed the region what could be, when it hosted WAFCON. In preparation for the tournament, the national FA invested in facilities and the domestic league. The result was special. In 13 previous tournaments, no Arab team had ever reached the knockout stage, but Morocco stormed into the final, defeating 11-time winners Nigeria along the way.  Even though the Atlas Lionesses fell to South Africa in the final, it was clear that something had changed. 

More than 45,000 packed the stadium for Morocco's semifinal win over Nigeria, and over 50,000 turned out to the final. For the first time ever, the women's game had become the biggest story in Morocco, and the team even received a message of congratulations from King Mohamed VI.  

"I experienced things that I had never experienced before; a stadium full of fans and football lovers," said Chebbak, who was named the Player of the Tournament. "I am living a dream." 

Ghizlane Chebbak holding her trophy as woman of the competition
One of three players to score three goals at WAFCON, Ghizlane Chebbak was named woman of the tournamentImage: Weam Mostafa/empics/picture alliance

Possible catalyst 

Morocco's success did not go unnoticed around the Arab world. 

"It was a sight for sore eyes," said Shalabi, the Palestinian football executive. "It is heart-warming to see this enthusiasm and support for a women's match. It just needs to succeed in one Arab country, and the rest will want to copy and improve. This will help create a friendly environment for women's football." 

Amondi too hopes that other nations take a page out of Morocco's book. 

"For Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria then Morocco is a template. If they want their women's teams to do well, investment, commitment and proper planning is needed." 

There are signs that this may be starting to happen. This year, Saudi Arabia, one of the more conservative countries in the region, launched a national league, and the national team played their first international games. In August, the federation announced its intention to bid for hosting rights for the 2026 Women's Asian Cup, something that would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier. 

"We have huge ambitions for the development of the women's game in Saudi Arabia, and the recent progress has been incredible," said Lamia bin Bahian, Board Member of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation. "We really are entering a new and exciting era for women's football." 

The biggest stage 

Morocco's journey is not over yet, having already secured the rights to host WAFCON 2024. More importantly though, next summer the Atlas Lionesses will represent the Arab world on the biggest stage, competing against the powerhouses from Europe and North and South America.  

"The World Cup is the biggest stage," Amondi, the African football writer said. 

"What more can you ask for really? It's an opportunity to see how far they've come and what they have to do to match the world's best. Can it be a game changer? In the long run, yes…but there's no short cut."  

Edited by Chuck Penfold.