Turning heads, winning hearts: Morocco's Atlas Lionesses' remarkable run at Women's World Cup

Morocco's Atlas Lionesses make history at Women's World Cup
8 min read
08 August, 2023

Lightning may not strike twice but Morocco has defied the odds at a World Cup once again; eight months after the men’s national team secured an historic semi-final finish at Qatar 2022.

Despite bowing out to France 4-0 at the last-16 stage, the Lionesses nonetheless stole the limelight by making it out of their group after historic wins against the Korean Republic and Colombia - teams ranked 45 places above them.

It wasn't meant to be like this. Morocco's debut ended in disaster after a 6-0 defeat at the hands of two-time champions Germany. 

"If the script had been written, the Atlas Lionesses didn't bother to read it" 

Morocco's men's team were also underdogs in Qatar but they had global stars playing for some of the biggest clubs in the world. They'd also previously played in five world cups. Getting out of the group stage was a long shot but still possible. 

For the Atlas Lionesses - making their debut at the tournament - getting out of their group seemed impossible, let alone at the expense of Germany. If the script had been written, the Atlas Lionesses didn't bother to read it. 

After a few nervous moments, the Atlas Lionesses learnt they had qualified for the knockout stages [Getty]
After a few nervous moments, the Atlas Lionesses learnt they'd qualified for the knockout stages [Getty]

Several members of the current women's team participated in regional amateur leagues just four years ago and have experienced the challenging times when teams were quickly assembled for vital qualifiers.

The Atlas Lionesses qualified for their initial significant tournament, the Women's Africa Cup of Nations (WAFCON), in 1998. Despite being eliminated early in the group stages, they performed admirably, winning one game, drawing another, and losing the third.

Two years later, Morocco qualified for WAFCON once again, defeating their fierce rivals Algeria. However, they were then humiliated by established powers in the women's Africa game. The Lionesses suffered three losses at the hands of Cameroon, Ghana and Nigeria, with a combined score of 13-1. This performance marked the beginning of a difficult two decades for the women's program.

Morocco tried eight times to qualify for the Women's Africa Cup of Nations and the World Cup but was unsuccessful. Over the past twenty years, they have only won one of the sixteen preliminary qualifiers they have played.

Morocco's men also struggled to qualify for the World Cup finals, missing out on the 2002, 2006, 2010, and 2014 editions. Moroccan clubs also failed to win the African Champions League during this period.

In 2009, the Royal Moroccan Football Federation (FRMF) decided to tackle the systemic issues that were hampering success by revamping its grassroots program. The Mohammed VI Academy was established that year with the goal of discovering young talents all over the country, providing for underprivileged areas in Rabat, offering a sports-study program, and preparing young players for professional football.

There was only one problem. All the programs were geared towards improving the men’s game. 

Live Story

In the past, the women's league in Morocco was mostly limited to certain regions of the country and consisted of amateur teams playing only a few games per season. As a result, the success of women's football in the country was not widely recognized. 

When Fawzi Lakjaa became the President of the FRMF in 2014, the state of Moroccan football was at its worst. The men's team had missed out on four consecutive World Cup finals and had failed to advance from their group in the Africa Cup of Nations for five editions in a row. At the time, the concerns of the women's football program were not a priority. 

However, Kahdija Illa, the current President of the Moroccan Women's Championship, had several meetings with Lakjaa to discuss the state of women's football in the country. Her persistence paid off when the FRMF decided to reorganize the women's game at a national level by creating U17 and U20 teams to cultivate young talent. In 2019, the domestic league was professionalized and expanded to a 14-team professional league, replacing the previous amateur regional format. 

Hosting the 2022 tournament allowed the Moroccan team to participate without going through a qualifying tournament, and their performance on home soil was impressive. However, the turning point for the country's success in women's football came two years earlier from a source across the Mediterranean Sea.


A post shared by The New Arab (@thenewarab)

'My staff is French but my heart is Moroccan'

Imagine a different reality where Reynald Pedros was a famous name in France's soccer history. With his luscious hair, he could have been the creative force in France's midfield during the 1990s and 2000s, instead of balding Zinedine Zidane.

Pedros was a year ahead of Zidane in breaking into the French team, but his reputation was tarnished when they suffered a shocking 2-1 home loss to Bulgaria, which resulted in France failing to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. Two years later, both players were teammates at Euro 1996. Pedros was only 24 years old and had high hopes of playing at the World Cup in France in two years.

Unfortunately, in the semi-finals of Euro 1996, France and the Czech Republic went into a shootout after 120 scoreless minutes to determine the winner. The preselected five players from each side scored their penalties, and Pedros volunteered to take the sixth. However, his effort was saved by Petr Kouba. This miss proved costly as his own fans booed him whenever he touched the ball in the next game he played for France. It was also his last time playing for the national team due to injuries and poorly advised moves that curtailed his promising career.

Live Story

On the other hand, Zidane went on to become a World and European champion with the national team, and his club career is filled with glittering achievements, including a Champions League medal with Real Madrid. His success allowed him to manage Europe's most successful men's team a decade and a half later, leading them to three straight Champions League titles.

Pedros had also become a manager at the same time. Taking over the most successful women’s team in Europe and guiding them to back-to-back Champions Leagues. 

The French press still only talked about Zidane. Pedros was the guy that missed the penalty. 

In November 2020, Pedros accepted an offer to take over the Atlas Lionesses. FRMF President Fawzi Lakjaa had a plan; convincing the Confederation of African Football (CAF) to award hosting rights to Morocco just two months later. That decision meant Morocco would automatically qualify for the tournament and give Pedros ample time to build a competitive side using the recently constructed $65 million facility on the outskirts of Rabat that now houses the Mohammed VI football academy. 

Pedros took a two-pronged approach to building his team. Rabat’s club AS FAR had taken a pioneering role in investing in Women’s Football allowing them to win the league year after year. When CAF organized a women’s version of the African Champions League in 2021 AS FAR secured a third-place finish. AS FAR’s players would go on to provide a base for the team and much like the men’s team the FRMF went to work mining the diaspora for talent. Convincing Moroccan players born in Spain, the Netherlands, England, and France to represent the country of their forefathers. 


A post shared by The New Arab (@thenewarab)

Results improved dramatically in the lead-up to the WAFCON. When Pedros’s team did lose to more illustrious opposition from Europe they analysed and iterated. The FRMF organized a spectacular tournament that shattered attendance records. The raucous fans helped the Atlas Lionesses reach the final of the tournament winning several tight games- including a penalty kick shootout victory against holders Nigeria in the semi-final. 

After the German team's defeat, the Atlas Lionesses aimed to score a goal and give their fans a memento from their first World Cup appearance. They achieved this in just six minutes in Adelaide. The rest of the match saw chances for both the Koreans and Moroccans to score more goals. However, the final result was determined by Ibtissam Jraïdi's goal in the 6th minute.

Later that evening, Colombia surprised Germany with a great performance from Linda Caicedo. For the final match day, Morocco needed a better result against Colombia than Germany could achieve against the Korean Republic. Both games had ups and downs. Morocco's only goal came after Catalina Perez saved a penalty from Ghizzlane Chebbak.

In the ensuing chaos, Anissa Lahrami managed to score, making Morocco the first debutant team to score in two Women's World Cup games. The second half saw a heroic defensive stand and 11 minutes of injury time. When the final whistle blew in Perth, Germany and Korea still had not settled their match in Brisbane. Although a minimum of nine minutes of injury time had been signalled, the clock just kept ticking.

The Moroccan team was extremely nervous as the seconds continued to pass. Coach Reynald Pedros remained on the bench, rubbing his face and trying to figure out how to react to the critical moment. Meanwhile, Captain Ghizzlane Chebbak gathered her teammates in a huddle on the pitch, and they nervously recited Al-Fatiha.

In the distance, a member of Morocco's coaching staff rushed towards them with a phone in hand. It had ended in Brisbane - after sixteen minutes of injury time. Germany was unable to find a winner, and Morocco had achieved the impossible. 

In the knockout rounds, the Lionesses ended up eventually falling to France, losing the match 4-0. But the Moroccan Atlas Lionesses' have won the hearts of millions, and have inspired the next generation of Moroccan girls to don the jersey. 

Bassil Mikdadi is the creator of Football Palestine and an international football pundit. His work has been featured in the BBC, The Totally Football Show, and The Guardian

Follow him on Twitter: @BassilMikdadi