Women's African Cup of Nations 2022: Morocco women's football team await historic final in tournament of firsts
The 2022 Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (WAFCON) is a tournament of firsts at least as far as the Arab world is concerned.
For a start, this continental competition, now in its 14th edition, has never taken place in the MENA region before but for much of July, 12 teams from all over Africa have been playing in the Moroccan cities of Casablanca and Rabat.
Now there are just two left and from a low-key start in terms of interest and excitement, there is huge attention on Saturday’s final. That is because hosts Morocco will face South Africa on Saturday with the trophy waiting for the winner. A nation is expectant.
"In Morocco, the women’s team have become part of the national sporting conservation in a way that has never happened before"
That is a huge turnaround from the past 13 editions with Arab teams making virtually no impact and never getting past the group stages.
Algeria had played in five but had won just two out of their 15 previous games. Egypt and Morocco have had two previous tries and did little. Tunisia had a single, forgettable appearance back in 1998.
This month, Tunisia reached the quarter-finals where they narrowly lost 1-0 to South Africa.
Morocco has really made headlines and history by getting to the final. Almost 50,000 fans shouted the roof off Rabat’s Prince Moulay Abdellah Stadium in the semi-final win over Nigeria –more of that later – and the same number, or more, will be there on Sunday.
Women’s football is on the front and back pages in the country for the first time.
The semi-final helped with that. Every tournament needs one epic game in the knockout stages and Morocco’s win over Nigeria had all those ingredients. The last time the Atlas Lionesses appeared on this stage was way back in 2000.
Nigeria on the other hand has won an amazing 11 out of 13 championships. The Super Falcons were strong favourites then but had two players sent off. Despite that, it was 1-1 at the end of 90 minutes leaving the fans in Rabat breathless with excitement and belief.
Nigeria’s goalkeeper Chiamaka Nnadozie was inspired, making save after save. It ended with a penalty shootout with Nnadozie having green lasers pointed in her eyes as she got ready and the same happened with the Nigerian players as they stepped up to take their kicks.
It was reminiscent of March’s World Cup qualifier when Senegal fans did the same to Egypt’s penalty-kickers, with the image of a green-faced Mohamed Salah going around the world. Senegal was fined $180,000 by FIFA. It is not a welcome feature of the game but these controversies do raise the profile of the tournament.
"The whole Moroccan team know that Nigeria is a great team, so to beat us they had to distract us,” said Nnadozie, who was named woman of the match. “They did everything they did just to distract us. Since I have been playing football, this is the worst match I have ever played in my life. They won but this is not winning for me. The officiating was not really okay. If they were good enough, we were nine players against 11, they would have scored and won. That shows you how great we are."
Moroccan coach Reynald Pedros steered clear of the controversy and focused on the next step. “I think South Africa is a great team and this match will be a great final,” the Frenchman said.
“Each match is difficult. Since the start of this AFCON, there hasn't been a team that stands out, there hasn't been a team that has won by a wide margin. It's hotly contested and we saw it again today. We hope to have a good final and then try to win it for the country, for everyone, for the girls.
If Morocco goes all the way, many plaudits will go to Ghizlane Chebbak. The 31-year-old is the joint top scorer so far with three goals. The 31-year-old who plays her club football in Rabat, netted in all three group games, helping the hosts to a perfect start.
Tunisia made the last eight, a solid performance in just their second ever appearance in the tournament. Meeting South Africa was a tough assignment and it ended in a narrow 1-0 defeat. Mariem Houij was the star of the show in the 4-1 defeat of Togo in the opening game, one that was responsible for Tunisia actually making it through.
It is no coincidence that Morocco’s success has come with the team recruiting eligible players from Europe and bringing in players with experience in some of the biggest and best women’s leagues in the world.
One of the team’s stars Rosella Ayane plays for Tottenham in England and represented England’s youth teams before representing the Atlas Lionesses due to having a Moroccan father. Salma Amani played for France’s Under-17 team and such players have helped bring some European experience to the squad to go with the local talent.
Tunisia has been doing the same. Sabrine Ellouzi was born in the Netherlands and plays for the Dutch club Feyenoord. Chirine Lamti was born in Denmark and plays in the Czech Republic.
The most immediate legacy in the Arab world seeing how a nation can be enthused about the women’s game. Morocco making the final has been huge news.
The passion and excitement on display in the Rabat stadium on Monday could not have been any greater had the men been in action. It’s fair to say that the region has been slow to get going in this field.
In Africa, the likes of Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Ghana, Cameroon and South Africa have made the running in the past.
In North Africa, there has been little investment, less professionalism and scant opportunities for women to make a living from playing football. Together, they give young girls role models to look up to and, hopefully, motivation to take up the game.
In Morocco, the women’s team have become part of the national sporting conservation in a way that has never happened before.
Whatever else happens, that should continue. The tournament is not just about being champions of Africa but about something even bigger –the 2023 Women’s World Cup.
No Arab team has ever played on the global stage and reaching the last four in WAFCON also means a place in Australia and New Zealand next year and the chance to take on titans such as the United States, Japan, Germany, England, Brazil and the rest.
Morocco has already made it and whatever happens in the final, the team have already booked their place down under.
For the next 12 months then, there will be preparations on the pitch, training camps, friendlies and investment. There will be media interest, the raising of profiles, and more fans and sponsors.
Winning on Saturday would take it off the charts and give the Arab world a first female continental champion and that could just be the start.
John Duerden has covered Asian sport for over 20 years for The Guardian, Associated Press, ESPN, BBC, New York Times, as well as various Asian media. He is also the author of four books.
Follow him on Twitter: @johnnyduerden