Women’s football gaining ground in Morocco, mentalities shifting too

Morocco’s Khadija Er-Rmichi, Nouhaila Benzina and Hanane Ait El Haj line up before their match against France in Hindmarsh Stadium, Australia, on August 8, 2023.

Photo credit: Photo I Reuters

What you need to know:

  • A plan for the development of women’s football was crafted and put in action with the aim of encouraging more women to pick football as a career and thrive in it.
  • To do so, women’s football as a profession has been reorganised, and funds were allocated to help it grow.

“When I saw, at the end of a match between the teams AS FAR (Rabat-based football club) and Assa Zag (a province located in the South of Morocco) boys run up to the female players to ask for their autographs, I realised that women’s football had gained in popularity and is no longer marginalised,” recalls Leila El Yousfi, coordinator of Morocco’s sports-study programme.

In fact, a tangible social “revolution” has been taking place in the country in line with the emergence of the Atlas Lionesses, the Moroccan national female football team, which has succeeded in making a name for itself on the international scene.

The team’s remarkable journey – in tournaments such as the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations in 2022 and the 2023 Women’s World Cup in Australia – has earned international respect for the players, and inspired interest in women’s football among Moroccans.

Their success is by no means down to chance. In recent years, the Kingdom of Morocco has actually made the bold decision to massively invest in women’s football.

Morocco fans outside the stadium before the match between their women's national team and France's in Adelaide, Australia, on August 8, 2023.

Photo credit: Photo I Reuters

Its annual budget has increased tenfold, reaching over 650 million dirhams (around $65 million). Development programmes have been set up to encourage girls to get involved in the sport, and sports-study pathways have been opened, creating the foundation for women’s football to form a solid structure.

Although football in Morocco has been practised by women since 2008 as an amateur sport, perhaps the true founding year of its professional iteration is 2014, with the appointment of Fouzi Lekjâa as president of the Royal Moroccan Football Federation.

“When the federation took up the task of developing women’s football, the latter was categorised under the ‘diversified football’ commission, alongside futsal and beach soccer.

“I suggested to the president of the federation that we set up a commission dedicated to women’s football, and he agreed,” recounts Nasser Larguet, the former technical director of the Moroccan national team and one of the architects of the women’s football reform.

“It was decided that we organise women’s football in the same way as men’s. We, therefore, set up an Under-17 championship in 2016 and launched in 2017, with the precious support of Leila El Yousfi, the first sports-study programme for women’s football.”

The sports-study programme for female football players started in the cities of Rabat and Saidia, and later expanded to regional football centres across the kingdom.

According to Ghizlane Chebbak, midfielder at AS FAR and in the Moroccan national team, the establishment of such programmes has really encouraged women to develop their talent.

“We’ve also enabled women to access high-level coaching training alongside men,” says Nasser Larguet.

Numerous female players have then become coaches, following in the footsteps of former international Moroccan player Lamia Boumahdi, who has been coaching the TP Mazembe team in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since March 2023 and has won with them the national championship.

Since August 2020, women’s professional football has gained further importance in the country. A “Plan for the Development of Women’s Football in Morocco 2020–24” was crafted and put in action with the aim of encouraging more women to pick football as a career and thrive in it.

To do so, women’s football as a profession has been reorganised, and funds were allocated to help it grow. For instance, the Royal Moroccan Football Federation takes on club expenses such as providing jerseys, balls and transport vehicles.

It also covers the salaries of the D1 and D2 players, who are respectively paid 3,500 and 2,500 dirhams per month (around $350 and $250). The target is to reach 90,000 female participants in the game and 10,000 female and male technicians this year.

According to sports-study coordinator Leila El Yousfi, the strategy is “paying off”.

“The success of women’s football hinges on effective sports policy, on training and on financial aid. This encourages families to let their girls play. There are no more psychological barriers as all the conditions have been met to enable Moroccan girls to pursue a professional career in football.”

Football player Ghizlane Chebbak agrees. “The results that we’ve had have considerably changed mentalities in Morocco. Today, families are searching for clubs that their girls could play for and become part of the national team.”

The success of the Atlas Lionesses has had a significant impact on society’s perceptions of the role of women in sport, too.

“The news media have helped the national team gain visibility. They give them as much weight as the Atlas Lions, the men’s team which achieved the feat of reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup 2022 in Qatar. It’s awesome,” chimes in Kenza, a big fan of the Beautiful Game.

This has brought gender stereotypes into question, and young girls have been inspired to pursue their sporting dreams without fearing social prejudice.

“I dream of playing for Morocco, the team is very good,” says Hanna, a 10-year-old French-Moroccan girl who plays for a club in Bourg-en-Bresse (France).

Today, the women’s national team is a model for many players both in Morocco and abroad. With each new performance, Atlas Lionesses are proof that talent, determination and hard work can transcend barriers to gender equality.

Soumaya Naamane Guessous, a sociologist, says: “These young women have broken down barriers. Soccer has long been considered a predominantly male sport, as much on the pitch as in the stands, and beyond the stadiums.

“We’ve gradually begun to see girls take an increasing interest in football as spectators. Today, we’re witnessing the emergence of a women’s team that’s excelling, which is significant in my opinion.

“Historically, the female body has often been associated with seduction, considered something to hide, a vessel of honour to protect and keep in check to hand it over intact to the future husband and in-laws. With this team, we’re witnessing a total transformation in perceptions of the female body.

“We’re seeing young women emerge without complexes, autonomous, ambitious, taking over territory that until now had been reserved exclusively for men.

“They use their bodies in the same way, and that is important in my view: they go from a vision of the body perceived as a potential object of dishonour, confined to maternity, to a dynamic body that’s expressing itself on a playing field with a ball.

“This ball symbolises the value and the prestige of a whole society. The female body becomes a bearer of promise, skill and performance, reflecting the national identity.

“It’s a real act of patriotism. It’s fascinating to see that the stadiums are now filling up to watch the women’s team’s games.”

This publication is part of the “Towards Equality” Sparknews-led programme, a collaborative alliance of 16 international news outlets highlighting the challenges and solutions to reach gender equality.