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Morocco's Women's World Cup team reaps investment rewards

July 25, 2023

Investment in women's soccer is paying off for Morocco, who are competing at their first Women's World Cup. Captain Ghizlane Chebbak says public support is pushing the team forward.

Ghizlane Chebbak of Morocco celebrates her goal during the 2022 Womens Africa Cup of Nations game between Uganda and Morocco
Ghizlane Chebbak is leading a football revolution in MoroccoImage: Ryan Wilkisky/Sports Inc/empics/picture alliance

Morocco's passion for football was showcased at the men's World Cup last year, when the Atlas Lions defied all expectations and reached the semifinals in Qatar. That energy is now flowing into the women's game.

The Moroccan diaspora reaches far across the globe, including a sizeable community numbering close to 10,000 in Australia.

It meant there was no shortage of red-clad fans in the stands for Morocco's opener against Germany on Monday. And despite the crushing 6-0 defeat, captain Ghizlane Chebbak still wants to give them something to cheer about.

'Diversity and richness'

"We don't want to go to the World Cup just to participate," she told DW. "We want to be the team that no one bets on but that ends up surprising everyone."

Moroccan culture combines influences from their Amazigh roots, Arab migration, European colonization and African identity.

For many fans like Nadia Bouchti, who has been living in Sydney the past 10 years, it's a proud moment to see an Arab nation compete for the first time at a women's World Cup.

"I'm so excited. Their participation can break down stereotypes as well as highlight the diversity and richness of Arab and Muslim cultures," she said.

"It's showcasing the talent and determination of women athletes in the region on the global stage."

The World Cup will be just the latest chapter in a string of achievements in recent years.

Morocco captain Ghizlane Chebbak celebrates with teammates
Morocco captain Ghizlane Chebbak is focused on reaching the second round in Australia and New Zealand.Image: Ryan Wilkisky/Sports Inc/empics/picture alliance

Changing Moroccan society's perceptions

More than 45,000 fans packed out the Moulay Abdellah Stadium for the 2022 Women's Africa Cup of Nations (WAFCON) final in Morocco's capital Rabat.

The hosts weren't supposed to be there, but pulled off a shock win against 11-time winners Nigeria in the semifinals. They lost the final 2-1 against South Africa, but it represented a massive shift for Chebbak, who won player of the tournament.

"Things have changed since the WAFCON. We managed to change society's perception of women's football at that tournament," she told DW.

"The fans' love is really encouraging and gives us motivation to continue our work. And the Moroccan FA is making huge efforts to provide the necessary conditions. It may take time, but I'm convinced women's football will shine in the coming years."

Morocco coach Reynald Pedros
Morocco coach Reynald Pedros has won two Champions Leagues with Lyon.Image: Gavin Barker/Sports Inc/empics/picture alliance

Heavy investment and a coaching coup

While the Moroccan Football Association has invested in the women's game since 2009, it's been a rapid transformation since president Fouzi Lekjaa kickstarted a four-year plan in 2020 with support from the country's monarchy.

They professionalized the top two divisions, provided set minimum wages for players and the staff of all clubs, and bolstered grassroots funding.

Hiring Reynald Pedros was another masterstroke. The French coach won two women's Champions League titles with powerhouses Olympique Lyon and quickly reshaped the landscape.

Pedros introduced training standards and tactics and player confidence rose.

"These achievements are the result of continuous work over the years. We had big ambitions," Chebbak said. "Now we're concentrating on the World Cup."

Morocco will rely on foreign-born talent with Moroccan roots at this tournament with Rosella Ayane (England), Yasmin Mrabet (Spain) and Elodie Nakkach (France) playing vital roles.

But the professionalization of the domestic leagues should be the bedrock for future generations.

Morocco women's team
Morocco have a tough opening game: GermanyImage: Ryan Wilkisky/Sports Inc/empics/picture alliance

Shifting opinions on women's sport

Chabbak was fortunate that her family were always supportive of her dream to play professional football, particularly her father, Larbi, who represented the men's national team.

"I grew up in a football-loving family who supported and advised me. My father always provided me with guidance," she said. "Thankfully, I can say that I made him proud and I want to make him even prouder."

Others weren't so fortunate, facing opposition from their community and even their own family members.

"We lost many talents due to societal views and families' rejection," Chebbak explained. "I knew many talented players who had the potential to go far. But families were afraid of allowing their daughters to play football and prevented them from doing so."

Germany are Morocco's first opponents

"I'm so proud to witness these achievements and see Morocco contribute to the growth and recognition of women's football," said Bouchti, who traveled to Melbourne to attend the opener against Germany. "We just want to thank them for raising our flag and making us very proud."

Group H isn't set to get much easier with games against South Korea and Colombia to come.

And the confidence running through this team should help them achieve their lofty goals.

"It was incredible to qualify but now our focus is on the World Cup," Chebbak said. "We know it will be challenging but we will concentrate on our style of play. We want to be competitive and reach the second round."

Given Morocco's meteoric rise in football in recent years, their ambitions appear within reach.

Edited by Matt Ford

Janek Speight Sports reporter and editor