Khadija Rmichi’s path to the Women’s World Cup started on a bicycle.
Rmichi, a goalkeeper, grew up in Khouribga, a mining city in central Morocco. As a girl, she tried many sports, including basketball, but always grew bored with them. She was frequently drawn instead to the soccer played by boys in the streets. Sometimes she enjoyed just watching the games. Many days, she couldn’t resist joining in, even when 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 I would just return to the street to play whenever I had a chance.”
A local coach liked her spirit. He told Rmichi that if she could find enough girls to form a team, he would train them. So she hopped on a bike and toured Khouribga’s side streets and playgrounds, looking for teammates. When it was necessary, Rmichi said, she would take her sales pitch directly into the girls’ homes, helping to persuade reluctant parents and families to let them play.
“I tried to get into other sports,” she said, “but I just wanted to play soccer.”
A Team of Firsts
One of eight first-time qualifiers in the Women’s World Cup field, Morocco may not win a game playing in a group that includes a former champion (Germany), an Asian regular (South Korea) and the second-best team in South America (Colombia).
But the fact that Morocco is playing in this tournament, which began Thursday in Australia and New Zealand, and that its women’s team exists at all, is serving as an inspiration and 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 nation. Still, its squad was little known even to most Moroccans before it hosted the event that served as the continent’s World Cup qualifying tournament on home soil last July. As it posted win after win, however, the country’s stadiums started to fill with fans, many of them seeing the team play for the first time.
In a country where soccer is revered but where interest in the women’s game is a new phenomenon, that success raised the team’s profile. “They showed us that they can fill stadiums and make Moroccans happy,” the team’s French coach, Reynald Pedros, said. “They did it on the African stage. Now we are hoping to do the same on the international one.”
Morocco’s presence in Australia this month is a testament to the efforts to develop women’s soccer in the country through government investments and a concerted effort to unearth talent not only in cities like Rabat and Casablanca but also from the vast Moroccan diaspora in France, Spain, Britain and the Netherlands.
That diversity was on display on a cold but joyful night earlier this year in Prague, where the team had come to face the Czech Republic in a pre-World Cup exhibition match. During the evening training session, Pedros gave instructions to the group in French, and the players shouted commands and encouragement to one another in a mix of Arabic, French and English. An interpreter stood by the field in case he was needed. For most of the practice, he was not: Most of the players had by then established ways to communicate even when they didn’t share a common language.
Their diverse paths were sometimes bound by similar threads. Sofia Bouftini, a 21-year-old who grew up in Morocco, initially faced resistance from her family when she expressed an interest in taking soccer more seriously. Like Rmichi, she had fallen in love with the sport playing against boys while longing to be part of a real team.
“My grandmother advocated for me and convinced my father,” she said. “My dad was against it.” He eventually relented, Bouftini said, when he realized how talented she was.
Sitting in his office this spring, Pedros, 51, cautioned that expectations for his team should remain realistic. The stakes for his squad, a first-time qualifier to the biggest championship in women’s soccer, aren’t the same as those for the men’s team, which won admirers far and wide in December as it became the first African team to advance to the semifinals.
Matching that achievement should not be the measuring stick this month, Pedros said. “Comparing them to the boys,” he said of his players, “is not a good thing.”
Morocco’s men had participated in international tournaments many times, he pointed out, before mounting the stunning run in Qatar that produced cheers at home and praise nearly everywhere else. The stars of the men’s team are employed by some of Europe’s best clubs, and so long ago learned how to perform on soccer’s biggest stages. For the women, he said, it will all be new. Success will be marked in smaller steps. “There won’t be 20,000 Moroccan supporters in the stadiums in Australia,” he said.
Playing the long game is something the country’s sports leaders seem to acknowledge. On the sprawling Mohammed VI football complex in Salé, close to Morocco’s capital, Rabat, ultramodern facilities built in 2009 are where the new generations of soccer players are being groomed to become tomorrow’s champions.
But for those who started before such facilities were available, the path to elite soccer was not always easy. For the players who came to the team after growing up in Europe, choosing Morocco was a complex question of opportunity and identity. But even those who had better opportunities to learn the game and train in the European countries where they grew up acknowledged they often faced similar resistance from their families.
Nesryne El Chad, a 20-year-old central defender, grew up in Saint-Étienne, France, a city steeped in soccer. The daughter of Moroccan immigrants, she learned the game playing against boys during recess when she was at school. When her family traveled to Morocco during summer vacations, she said she would buy a ball from a shop and play on the beach.
When she was 12, her parents realized she might be talented enough to have a future in soccer, so her mother enrolled her in a sports study program and made sure she was excused from some of the household chores that her siblings had to do, so that she could rest on Sundays before games. Her father, a black belt in karate, initially resisted the idea of a soccer-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 every game, and is now one of her most fervent supporters.
It was never a question, she said, which country’s colors she would wear if given the chance.
“I was raised feeling Moroccan,” she said. “I always wanted to play for Morocco.”
Voices From Home
A few hours inside the Ledni Stadium in Chomutov, close to the Czech Republic’s border with Germany, showed both how infectious Morocco’s success has become for fans, at home and abroad, and how far the team still has to go.
The crowd that had defied the cold to watch Morocco’s friendly in April was mostly Czechs, including a group of loud, inebriated hockey fans who had spilled inside 30 minutes into the game after leaving a different event nearby. But there were also small pockets of Moroccans — expatriates mostly, some of whom had traveled more than 100 miles to attend. They were filled with purpose and belonging, drawn in by an urge to express love for the country where they had been born, and by the need to share that sentiment with others who would understand. Gender mattered little to them.
“To me, girls or boys, it’s all the same,” said Kamal Jabeur, 59, who had come about 190 miles from the city of Brno. “We came here because we wanted the girls to not feel alone.”
Jabeur stood perched on his seat the entire game, cheering and chanting, “Dima Maghrib” — Always Morocco. His enthusiasm, while welcome, only did so much: Morocco lost to a Czech team that didn’t qualify for the World Cup. A few days later, it did the same against Romania, another nonqualifier, by 1-0 in Bucharest. Rougher nights could lie ahead.
On Monday, Morocco will open its first World Cup with its toughest test yet: a date against Germany, one of the tournament favorites, in Melbourne. The players know their countrymen, and their families, wherever they are, will be watching.
El Chad, the central defender, said her grandfather has made a habit of watching all of her games from a favorite cafe back in Morocco, where he likes to boast to his friends and neighbors about his granddaughter.
El Chad knows the joy that games like the ones she will play this month can bring. She hurt a foot jumping with joy while watching one of Morocco’s wins in the men’s World Cup on television. This month, it is her team’s turn. She hopes to inspire similar sentiments, though not similar injuries, no matter the outcome.