Morocco aiming to inspire a nation once again at a World Cup

Rosella Ayane: Morocco on the right track ahead of World Cup (2:23)

Rosella Ayane believes new investment in Morocco's women's football will help them compete with England in the near future. (2:23)

Editor's Note: This was published on July 23 before Morocco's first game, but their 1-0 win over Colombia on Thursday means they have advanced to the Round of 16, where they will face France.

MELBOURNE, NAARM, Australia -- "'We are really proud in Morocco of the achievements that we have made so far," Ghizlane Chebbak, speaking through a translator, said on Sunday ahead of the game with Germany. "We feel a sense of pride and honour to represent our country on the world stage; we have great motivation, and we are eager to make our mark on this tournament. There is no mission impossible."

No mission impossible. It's both a signal of defiant determination from Morocco's 32-year-old captain and a statement that could be a descriptor for Moroccan football as a whole, given what has been produced by the North African nation's men's and women's sides over the past 12 months.

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After the men's team's remarkable run to the 2022 World Cup semifinals, the latest chapter of Morocco's story sees the Atlas Lionesses not only compete in a Women's World Cup for the first time, but also as the first-ever team from the Arab world to compete in women's football's premier showcase.

Under manager Reynald Pedros, Chebbak and her teammates began this journey and secured their place Down Under when they broke new ground in reaching the final of the Women's Africa Cup of Nations (WAFCON) for the first time last year, bettering two previous appearances in 1998 and 2000 that had produced just a single win combined.

Riding a wave of home support, with their ranks swelled by players attached to local powers AS FAR -- who won their first CAF Women's Champions League in 2022 -- and the likes of Tottenham's Rosella Ayane, they downed long-standing African powers Nigeria in the semifinal before falling agonisingly short (2-1) against South Africa in front of 51,000 fans at Rabat's Prince Moulay Abdellah Stadium in the final.

"Nobody expected us to do as well as we did at AFCON," Ayana told ESPN earlier this month. "I think it was our first time to make it to the final stages of the competition and if I'm completely honest, I don't think anyone expects anything of us at the World Cup. But I don't mind that, because being an underdog, you just have everything to prove and absolutely no pressure, so I'm excited to go and see what we can do as Morocco."

Following in the footsteps of her biggest supporter and her father Larbi, who was part of Morocco's only AFCON-winning side back in 1976, Chebbak finished as top scorer (alongside Nigeria's Rasheedat Ajibade) and player of the tournament. She became the toast of a nation that, though initially sceptical and resistant towards women's football, has increasingly been won over by the team's success.

Such is the excitement and affection for the team across Morocco that the team was greeted by fans at each of their pre-World Cup training stops across Austria, Italy and Switzerland.

"We are honoured to be the first Arab country to take part in the Women's World Cup," Chebbak added. "We feel that we have to shoulder a big responsibility to show a good image, and to show the achievements that the Moroccan football team has made in terms of progress by qualifying for the World Cup. This is a great milestone for us and we hope that our match with Germany tomorrow will pave the way for other matches."

Just eight months ago, in the men's World Cup, Morocco's fairytale progression under Walid Regragui to the semifinals in Qatar saw them become the first team from both the African and Arabic world to get so far. Moroccans everywhere celebrated the Atlas Lions' achievements, as did the broader African and Arab worlds, and even neutral fans around the globe.

Now facing down their own World Cup adventure, Pedros and Chebbak were both quick to acknowledge the power that that moment had had on both themselves and the nation.

"I believe that we have been very inspired by what the men's team has done at the World Cup, in our determination and our willingness, it's very important for us to be here," Pedros, also speaking through a translator, said. "We have had discussions with [men's coach] Walid Regragui, he met the team before we left and he explained to us how they could rise to the challenge.

"It's very important for us to look back to what we have at home, and the reference we have back at home is the men that have had an incredible journey and we are very inspired by them."

A strategy of deliberate investment in the promotion and development of women's football across Morocco stretches back to 2009. However, that has been supercharged by the Royal Moroccan Football Federation (FRMF) in recent years, stretching back to the opening of a women's football academy in 2016 and the hosting of a symposium on African Women's Football in 2018.

In the years that follow, the FRMF has overseen the creation and subsidisation of a two-tiered professional league setup and the opening of the King Mohammed VI Training Complex; a $65m elite facility for both men's and women's national teams that includes full-sized, futsal and beach pitches, elite gym and medical facilities, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, classrooms, and even a hotel.

"I'm telling you, if no country has taken that into consideration and [is] acting upon getting those structures in, Morocco is going to be a powerhouse whether we like it or not," South Africa forward Thembi Kgatlana told ESPN in March. "Because they are in the right direction of making sure they empower the women's game in their country."

A well-travelled figure that represented his native France 25 times as a player and who won two Ligue 1 titles, a French Cup and two Women's Champions League titles with Lyon after he moved into coaching, Pedros was appointed to the Atlas Lionesses position in late 2020 as a statement hire by FRMF.

"I think the federation and the president have done everything they could to make sure we succeed," he said on Sunday. "We arrived in 2020 when it was a blank slate and they have told us we want to be behind women's football: we want to have a professional championship, we want to have sport and study and we want to go to AFCON.

"Those objectives, you can meet them and we will give you everything you need to do a great job. We gave our plan to the president [FRMF president Fouzi Lekjaa] because in 2020 we were just beginning and the AFCON was coming closer. We were a year-and-a-half away so we had to work very fast and very well. We were bringing in these new players to train them ... and have a pool of players within a few years. We've invested a lot from the federation.

"Today we see what we have because we are finalists of the WAFCON in front of 50,000 people. There is a passion for women's football in Morocco."

Of course, given that established global powerhouse Germany awaits Morocco in their opening game, Pedros also acknowledged the challenges that lay ahead on Sunday. They are "ready to fight" but he also emphasised that there are two further games, against South Korea and Colombia, in which his side will have the chance to make history.

"They all know they're here at the World Cup," he said. "They all know it's going to be their first game and they are debutantes. But the message for them is that it is extremely positive; it's going to give us so much experience."

Chebbak added: "We are the first generation that can walk this path. We hope that will inspire other footballers in Morocco."