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Soccer

Morocco Is Serious

Morocco team line up during the Women´s International Friendly match between Italy and Morocco at Stadio Paolo Mazza on July 01, 2023 in Ferrara, Italy.
Photo by Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

It’s almost time for the 2023 World Cup. To help get you ready, we will be providing you with precious information about every team in the tournament. You can read all of our team previews here.

It's incredible how far Morocco has come in just a few short years. From the team's inception in 1998 up to 2020, the Atlas Lionesses enjoyed almost nonstop failure. They did qualify for the 1998 and 2000 Africa Women Cup of Nations (gaining entry to that first one because their opponent in qualifying didn't show up to the match), but came away from the two tournaments with only one win and an aggregate minus-17 goal difference. From there, the Moroccans failed to qualify for the next 10 AFCONs, six Olympic Games, and six World Cups. The Morocco national team's first two decades were so inconsequential that the history section of their English-language Wikipedia starts in the year 2020.

But 2020 really was a new dawn for the Atlas Lionesses. That was when Fouzi Lekjaa, the president of the Moroccan soccer federation (FRMF), started implementing what's been called his Marshall Plan for the growth of Moroccan women's soccer. First, Lekjaa hired Kelly Lindsey, a former USWNT player who transitioned to soccer management and administration after injuries cut short her playing career, to serve as Morocco's director of women's football. The federation then convened the Women's Football Development Convention, from which emerged their aggressive plan to improve the sport in Morocco.

This plan completely revamped the domestic league system, creating two divisions: one national top tier and a regionally bisected second tier. Crucially, both of the new divisions would be professionalized with the help of substantial FRMF funding, granted to every team in the top two divisions so long as they met the FRMF's guidelines, like providing youth development teams and having gender-balanced coaching staffs. In addition, the plan created a U-17 league and smaller regional leagues for clubs below the two top divisions.

Along with all that investment was a vision for the future. By 2024 Morocco wanted its domestic leagues to have been greatly improved, to have 90,000 women and girls registered with the federation as players, to have trained 10,000 new coaches and executives working in women's soccer, for the national team to regularly qualify for the AFCON, and to debut in the sport's biggest international tournaments by qualifying for the 2023 World Cup and the 2024 Olympics. The goal of all of it was to give the country a sport they could excel at and a team they could be proud of. As Lindsey put it after the federation first announced its transformational plan, "Simply, I want the people of Morocco to fall in love with their women’s team. I want the women’s teams and coaches to bring great pride to the country on the African and International stage."

While the country was steadily building up its domestic infrastructure with the domestic changes, the FRMF took a different but no less ambitious approach to improving the national team right away. The first big step there was the hiring of Reynald Pedros as manager. Pedros, a former France international, is a highly decorated coach who was coming off back-to-back Women's Champions League titles with Olympique Lyon when he joined the Atlas Lionesses in late 2020. The presence of a coach of his stature by itself spoke volumes about how serious Morocco was about its national team. Armed with that seriousness and Pedros's pedigree, the FRMF started a campaign to court foreign-born players whose family heritage made them eligible to represent Morocco internationally. The campaign was a resounding success: 11 of the 23 players Pedros called up during his first international break in charge were dual-nationals, and that number had grown to 17 just a few months later.

The new-look Morocco first announced itself to the world in earnest in 2022. Morocco had won the hosting rights of that year's Africa Women's Cup of Nations, which automatically qualified the national team for the tournament, its first AFCON since 2000. The AFCON doubles as Africa's World Cup qualifying process, which meant it provided Morocco the opportunity to achieve several of its goals: prove itself a growing power on the continental scene, qualify for a first-ever World Cup, and start engendering some of that love between team and nation. It was an opportunity the Moroccans wouldn't let pass them by.

The Atlas Lionesses came out roaring in the tournament. Morocco won all three group-stage matches, earning a spot in the knockout round. A 2-1 win over Botswana there in the quarterfinals won Morocco a spot in the semis, which also won them automatic qualification for the World Cup. Already, then, the tournament was a resounding success. In the semis Morocco came up against Nigeria, the traditional powerhouse of African soccer. The match was an even 1-1 after 90 minutes of play, and ended the same way after the 30 minutes of extra time. In a tight penalty shootout, Rosella Ayane, an English-born forward who'd committed to playing for her father's native Morocco only the year before, scored the winning spot-kick, even if she didn't realize it at first.

Ultimately, Morocco lost in the final against a South Africa team wanting to make its own statement about the future of African soccer. But there was no underestimating what the tournament had meant. On home soil, in front of thousands of adoring fans—attendance at Morocco's semifinal was north of 45,000, while the final was about 50,000, which became the no. 1 and no. 2 all-time record figures for a women's soccer match on the continent—Morocco had reached new heights, with the promise of climbing even higher in a year's time when the World Cup came around. That time is now here, and Morocco is ready.

Who Is Their Star?

The aforementioned Rosella Ayane is Morocco's most talented player. The 27-year-old forward was a Chelsea youth player and currently plays for Tottenham, though her journey in between those stops was a circuitous one. Like many a Chelsea youngster, Ayane found herself shunted out on a series of loans in her teen years while the club sought to test her mettle. The loan life was a destabilizing one, and she particularly struggled during a 2016 spell at Everton. Alone and far from home for the first time, she struggled professionally and personally to cope with the demands.

Chelsea decided against renewing her contract after that failed loan spell, and Ayane stepped away from the game entirely for the better part of a year. She spent that time regrouping and trying figure out where and whether she wanted to continue her career. Eventually, she returned to the sport with Cypriot club Apollon Limassol. "I visited places but nothing felt right," Ayane told Our Game Magazine about her decision to join Apollon. "I looked at options abroad and eventually I went out to visit Cyprus and that felt right. The manager was very welcoming, the players were, and it made me fall in love with football again so I think I made the right choice having a little break."

Ayane's career took off from there. In Cyprus, the forward scored 19 goals in 19 games across the domestic league and the Champions League. That breakout season led her back to England with one of her old loan clubs, Bristol City, which then led her to then-newly promoted Tottenham, where she's been a stalwart in a rapidly improving team.

Ayane is a versatile forward who can play in the middle or on the wings. She's not a dead-eyed finisher, but what she lacks in scoring voracity she makes up for with breadth of skills. She's a true all-rounder who is great at reading spaces, creating space for herself and others with her movement, inventive passing, crossing, playing with both feet, and clean and accurate ball-striking. As is often the case with well-rounded players, Ayane plays a mostly support role with Tottenham, limiting her game in compensation for her more talented teammates. That makes it especially cool when she pulls on the Morocco jersey and becomes the team's focal point, proving that being a jack of all trades doesn't necessarily preclude mastery.

Tell Me About A Cool Youngster

Sakina Ouzraoui is another one of Morocco's exciting young dual-nationals. Born in Barcelona, Ouzraoui was originally a gymnast before she fully gave herself over to soccer. Her Moroccan parents moved the family to Brussels when she was 12, and it was playing street soccer and futsal there that she developed her love of the game. She eventually joined local youth club RWDM Girls, made a name for herself with her technical finesse (as a teen she was compared to Lionel Messi and Zinedine Zidane when it comes to flair on the ball) and eye for goal, and eventually signed with Belgian giants Anderlecht, the club she has recently returned to after a successful season with Club Brugge.

Ouzraoui represented Belgium at the youth level before committing to Morocco last year. At only 21 years old, she's already solidified herself as one of the national team's key pieces. She usually starts on the wing, where she likes to cut inside and use her tricky dribbling to run at opponents before either shooting or setting up a teammate. Ayane's generous play and Ouzraoui's penchant for wandering to look for pockets of space mean the two are often swapping positions and dragging defenders around. If anyone on the Morocco roster is capable of coming up with a tournament-defining highlight, it's probably Ouzraoui.

Who Is Their Enemy?

Remember, Morocco has only really been any good at women's soccer for about three years. That's not enough time to build any serious rivalries, though I'm sure they see the likes of Nigeria and South Africa and Cameroon as Africa's old guard they'd love to take down. And after seeing a team's own federation take this spot in so many other previews, I'm just happy that the FRMF's deeply inspiring role in actively supporting women's soccer in the country means we can stay above the usual unpleasantness here.

National Folktale Who I Think Is Beautiful And Bleak

Imilchil is a small town in the Atlas Mountains, home to Lakes Isli and Tislit. The folktale that explains how those neighboring lakes came to be is basically Morocco's version of Romeo and Juliet.

Tislit, the story goes, was a beautiful young woman from the area. One day, while walking her family's sheep, she came across a handsome young shepherd named Isli. The two immediately hit it off. But towards the end of their laughter-filled chat, they asked each other what tribe they were from. Tislit was from the Ait Brahim clan, while Isli was Ait Yazza, two bitter Amazigh rival tribes. The pair was discouraged learning this, knowing that their families would not support a cross-tribe relationship.

Nevertheless, Tislit and Isli were smitten with one another. They continued to meet in secret, growing deeper and deeper in love. Eventually, uncertain about what to do, Tislit confided to her mother about the illicit love, while Isli did the same, telling his father that he planned to ask Tislit to marry him. Both parents forbade the relationship.

Like Bono, the young couple realized they could live neither with or without each other. The couple once again met at their usual spot in the mountains, and proceeded to weep and weep and weep. Each lover's unstinting tears flowed down the mountain side and pooled at the bottom, where they formed two lakes. Distraught and without hope, the couple decided to drown themselves in their respective new lakes.

Grief struck Tislit's and Isli's families upon learning of the poor young couple's fate. Such pointless loss of priceless life, all for petty differences. The Ait Brahim and the Ait Yazza pledged to never let this happen again, and to support this they decreed to allow young people to follow their hearts in love, even if it led across tribal lines. To commemorate Tislit and Isli, Imilchil to this day hosts its annual moussem, a large gathering that celebrates the year's wedding and engagement season.

Scran Or Not Scran: National Dish Edition

Couscous is a pasta that looks kind of like rice, which is often the bed over which one pours a stew. Sounds great, but I've not had it before. In search of first-hand knowledge, I asked my wife if she's had it, and she said she has and she liked it. For another opinion, I asked MF Doom what he thought, and he said it makes you "frown." Conflicting reports, but I know where my loyalties lie: not scran.

What Would A Successful World Cup Look Like For This Team?

It's hard for a debut World Cup not to qualify as a success no matter what happens. For that reason, as long as Morocco doesn't get blown out three times, I think they can feel good about things. On the other hand, their group isn't nearly as fearsome as some others, and the Morocco squad is pretty talented. Getting out of the group is definitely possible. In light of that, getting to the knockouts should be their goal, but falling short wouldn't be so bad either.

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