Khadija Rmichi’s road to the Women’s World Championship began on a bike.
Rmichi, a goalkeeper, grew up in Khouribga, a mining town in central Morocco. As a girl, she tried many sports, including basketball, but they always got bored. Rather, she was often drawn to soccer, which boys played in the streets. Sometimes she enjoyed just watching the games. For many days she couldn’t resist joining in, even though she knew it would mean trouble.
“It was considered shameful to play with boys,” Rmichi, now 33, said in an interview in April. “My older brother would hit me and drag me home, and whenever I had the opportunity I would just go back to the streets to play.”
A local trainer liked her spirit. He told Rmichi that if she could find enough girls to form a team, he would train her. So she hopped on a bike and toured the back streets and playgrounds of Khouribga in search of teammates. When needed, Rmichi said, she would take her selling point right into the girls’ homes and help convince reluctant parents and families to let them play.
“I tried to get into other sports,” she said, “but I just wanted to play football.”
A team of firsts
As one of eight first-time qualifiers entering the Women’s World Cup, Morocco may not win a game if they play in a group that includes a former world champion (Germany), a regular from Asia (South Korea) and second-best South America (Colombia).
But the fact that Morocco are taking part in the tournament, which kicked off in Australia and New Zealand on Thursday, and that their women’s team even exist, serves as an inspiration and is a measurable source of pride at home and abroad.
Morocco is the first Women’s World Cup qualifier from North Africa and the first from a majority Arab country. Still, his squad was little known even to most Moroccans before hosting the event that served as the continent’s World Cup qualifying tournament on home soil last July. However, as victory followed victory, the country’s stadiums began to fill with fans, many of whom were watching the team play for the first time.
In a country where football is revered but interest in women’s football is a recent phenomenon, this success raised the profile of the team. “They showed us that they can fill stadiums and make Moroccans happy,” said the team’s French coach Reynald Pedros. “They made it on the African stage. Now we hope to do the same at international level.”
Morocco’s presence in Australia this month is testament to efforts to develop women’s football in the country through government investment and a concerted effort to attract talent not only in cities like Rabat and Casablanca but also in the vast Moroccan diaspora in France, Spain, Britain and the Netherlands.
That diversity was evident on a cold but happy evening in Prague earlier this year, where the side faced the Czech Republic in a pre-World Cup friendly. During the evening training session, Pedros gave instructions to the group in French and the players shouted orders and encouragement to one another in a mixture of Arabic, French and English. An interpreter was available on site in case he was needed. In most training sessions this was not the case: most players now had established lines of communication, even if they did not speak a common language.
Their different paths were partly connected by similar threads. Sofia Bouftini, a 21-year-old who grew up in Morocco, initially faced opposition from her family when she expressed an interest in taking football more seriously. Like Rmichi, she had fallen in love with the sport of playing against boys, while at the same time longing to be part of a real team.
“My grandmother stood up for me and convinced my father,” she said. “My father was against it.” He finally gave in, Bouftini said, realizing how talented she was.
Sitting in his office this spring, Pedros, 51, warned that expectations of his team should remain realistic. The stakes for his side, qualifying for the biggest league in women’s football for the first time, are not the same as for the men’s team, which won huge admirers in December when they became the first African team to reach the semi-finals.
Matching that performance shouldn’t be the benchmark this month, Pedros said. “Comparing them to the boys,” he said of his players, “is not a good thing.”
He pointed out that the Moroccan men had competed in international tournaments many times before putting on the impressive run in Qatar that drew cheers at home and praise almost everywhere. The stars of the men’s team are employed by some of the best clubs in Europe and long ago learned how to perform on the biggest stages of football. For women, he said, everything will be new. Success is determined in smaller increments. “There won’t be 20,000 Moroccan fans in the stadiums in Australia,” he said.
The country’s sporting bosses appear to be aware that they are playing for the long haul. State-of-the-art facilities will be built at the sprawling Mohammed VI football complex in Salé, near the Moroccan capital of Rabat, in 2009 to prepare the new generation of football players to become tomorrow’s champions.
But for those who started before such facilities were available, the path to top-flight football has not always been easy. For the players who joined the team after growing up in Europe, choosing Morocco was a complex matter of opportunity and identity. But even those who had better opportunities to learn and practice the game in the European countries where they grew up admitted they often encountered similar opposition from their families.
Nesryne El Chad, a 20-year-old centre-back, grew up in Saint-Étienne, France, a city steeped in football. As the daughter of Moroccan immigrants, she learned to play against boys during the breaks in her school days. When her family went to Morocco for the summer holidays, she said she would buy a ball from a shop and play on the beach.
When she was 12, her parents realized that she could potentially be talented enough for a future in football. So her mother enrolled her in a physical education program and arranged for her to be freed from some of the chores her siblings had to do so she could rest on Sundays before the games. Her father, a black belt in karate, was initially opposed to the idea of a football-focused future for Nesryne – until, she said, his own mother told him to let her play. He ended up taking her to every practice and game and is now one of her staunchest supporters.
It was never a question, she said, which national colors she would wear if given the chance.
“I grew up with Moroccan feelings,” she said. “I always wanted to play for Morocco.”
voices from home
A few hours at the Ledni Stadium in Chomutov, near the Czech border with Germany, showed how contagious Morocco’s success has become for fans at home and abroad and how far the team still has to go.
The crowd that braved the cold to watch the friendly with Morocco in April was mostly Czech, including a group of rowdy, drunk hockey fans who spilled out of the stadium 30 minutes into the game after another event nearby. But there were also small groups of Moroccans – mostly expats, some of whom traveled more than 100 miles to take part. They were filled with purpose and belonging, drawn by the urge to express their love for the country they were born in and the need to share that feeling with others who would understand. Gender didn’t matter to them.
“It doesn’t matter to me whether it’s a boy or a girl,” said Kamal Jabeur, 59, who traveled about 300 kilometers from the city of Brno. “We came here because we didn’t want the girls to feel alone.”
Jabeur sat in his seat throughout the game, cheering and chanting: “Dima Maghrib” – Always Morocco. His enthusiasm, while welcome, had limited effect: Morocco lost to a Czech side that hadn’t qualified for the World Cup. A few days later, the same was achieved in Bucharest against Romania, also not qualified, 1-0. Harder nights could be ahead.
On Monday Morocco open their first World Cup with their toughest test yet: a meeting against Germany, one of the tournament favourites, in Melbourne. The players know their countrymen and their families, wherever they are, will be watching.
El Chad, the centre-back, said her grandfather made it a habit to follow all their games at their favorite coffee shop in Morocco, where he likes to brag about his granddaughter to his friends and neighbours.
El Chad knows the joy that games like the one she’ll be playing this month can bring. She injured her foot and jumped for joy while watching one of Morocco’s victories at the Men’s World Cup on TV. This month it’s your team’s turn. She hopes to evoke similar feelings, but not similar hurts, whatever the outcome.