Rabat, Morocco – In a cafe on a main avenue in a residential neighbourhood of Rabat, Morocco’s capital, people were glued to the screen, captivated by their team playing France in the Women’s World Cup last 16.
While the match didn’t attract the crowds that usually fill Moroccan cafes when the men’s team play, groups of mostly young men sat drinking coffee or mint tea while other people stopped by on this hot and humid weekday to see the Atlas Lionesses take on one of the tournament favourites in Adelaide, Australia.
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Among them, two female athletes who had just won gold medals at the Francophone Games in Kinshasa were watching their national women’s team play in the World Cup for the first time.
Noura Ennadi, 24, said it is no longer unusual to see women playing football in Morocco. The women’s game has developed rapidly in recent years, going from the margins of African football to making a historic run in the Women’s World Cup.
“Even the boys weren’t getting that much attention before they started winning,” she said.
Last year, Morocco hosted the Women’s African Cup of Nations, and as they embarked on a run to the final, the stadiums started to swell with support, and the number of their supporters grew exponentially.
More than 50,000 fans crammed into the Prince Moulay Abdallah Stadium in Rabat for the final with thousands more outside as the Atlas Lionesses were narrowly beaten by South Africa.
A year later, they have continued to win the hearts of many Moroccans, becoming the first North African, Arab and Amazigh team to qualify for the Women’s World Cup. It was also the first team in Women’s World Cup history to feature a player wearing a hijab.
After an opening 6-0 drubbing by Germany, Morocco went on to defy the odds by beating South Korea and a talented Colombia side to reach the round of 16.
“We never gave up, and I think we deserved what we got,” said Anissa Lahmari, who scored the winning goal against Colombia on Thursday.
After the Moroccan women’s group stage exploits and the men’s historic run to the Qatar World Cup semi-finals last year, many dared to dream that these underdogs – ranked 72nd in the world to France’s fifth – could cause an upset and reach the quarter-finals.
And as Morocco faced a former coloniser and a country with whom diplomatic relations have been complicated in recent years, the game was also loaded with a historical and cultural edge. In the build-up, pundits on French television also attacked the presence of a hijabi woman on the pitch.
The teams were well acquainted as six Moroccan players play for French clubs and eight Atlas Lionesses are French Moroccan. Herve Renard, France’s coach, once led the Moroccan men’s squad. Reynald Pedros, Morocco’s coach, is French.
Sakina Karchaoui, who plays for France and whose parents are Moroccan, spoke candidly of the complex feelings that came with this particular confrontation.
“I’m very honoured for the Moroccan women that they’re taking part in this World Cup, their first,” she said. “I’m proud of my origins, and I wish them all the best.”
But as the game kicked off, hopes that Morocco would make history again soon evaporated as France scored three goals in less than 25 minutes.
With Morocco trailing 3-0 at half-time, only the prospect of scoring a consolation goal realistically remained.
While some people left the cafe in Rabat, others were determined to stay and support their team until the last whistle, no matter how heart-crushing the defeat. They watched helplessly as France, whose men’s side ended the dreams of the Atlas Lions in Qatar, cruised to a 4-0 win.
Abderahman Cherquaoui, Ennadi’s coach, watched the game alongside her and said the future of sport in the country is bright despite criticism about the lack of facilities in many places across the North African kingdom.
The state has made significant investments to encourage more participation and better performances and to recruit diaspora players, he said.
“The country has a long history of victorious female athletes,” Cherquaoui said in reference to Moroccan runners who have had high-level victories in recent decades.
Ikram Ouaaziz, another gold medal winner in Kinshasa, was also watching the game in the cafe in Rabat. She mostly wanted to show support and join her compatriots in cheering on the team.
“It was a huge accomplishment [to get this far],” she said, “but it is becoming more normal.”