Khadija Rumici’s road to the Women’s World Cup started with her bike.
Goalkeeper Rumich grew up in the mining town of Coulibuga in central Morocco. During her girlhood, she tried many sports, including basketball, but she always got bored. She was often drawn to soccer played by boys on the streets. Sometimes she enjoyed just watching the game. Even though she knew it was going to be trouble, there were many days when she couldn’t help but participate.
“It was considered shameful to play with boys,” Rmichi, now 33, said in an interview in April. “My brother beat me and dragged me home, but I would go back and play whenever I got the chance.”
A local coach liked her spirit. He told Rmichi that if he could find enough girls to form her team, she would train them. So she rode her bike around Kooribuga’s side streets and playgrounds looking for her teammates. Rmichi, she said, had pitched sales pitches directly to the girls’ homes when needed to persuade her reluctant parents and family members to let the girls play.
“I tried other sports, but I just wanted to play soccer,” she said.
first time team
Morocco, one of eight first-time qualifiers to the Women’s World Cup, could be out of luck playing in a group that includes former champions (Germany), Asia’s regulars (South Korea) and South America’s second-placed team (Colombia).
But the fact that Morocco is in the tournament, which opened in Australia and New Zealand on Thursday, and that there is a Moroccan women’s team, has been a source of inspiration and visible pride both at home and abroad.
Morocco have qualified for the Women’s World Cup for the first time from North Africa and the first from an Arab-majority country. Yet the team was largely unknown, even to most Moroccans, until last July when it hosted an event at home that doubled as a continental qualifier for the World Cup.But as they go from win to win, stadiums in this country started to fill up with fansFor many of them, it will be their first time seeing the team play.
In a country where soccer is revered, interest in the women’s game is a new phenomenon, and its success has made the team more popular. “They showed us that they can fill stadiums and make Moroccans happy,” said French coach Reinaldo Pedros. “They’ve done it on the African stage. We now want to do the same on the international stage.”
Morocco’s presence in Australia this month is a testament to efforts to develop women’s football in the country through government investment and a concerted effort to unearth talent not only in cities such as Rabat and Casablanca, but also in the vast Moroccan diaspora in France, Spain, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.
That versatility was evident on a chilly but fun night in Prague earlier this year when they faced the Czech Republic in a pre-World Cup exhibition match. During the evening practice sessions, Pedros gave instructions to his team in French, while the players shouted commands and encouragement to each other in a mixture of Arabic, French and English. An interpreter was on site if needed. In most practice he was not. Most players had established ways of communicating at that point, even if they didn’t share a common language.
Their diverse paths were sometimes connected by similar threads. Sophia Buchtini, 21, who grew up in Morocco, initially faced opposition from her family when she expressed that she wanted to take football more seriously. Like Rmichi, she yearned to be part of a real team and fell in love with the sport against the boys.
“My grandmother defended me and persuaded my father,” she said. “Her father was against it,” said Buchtini, who eventually relented when she realized her talent.
Sitting in his office this spring, Pedros, 51, warned that his expectations of the team should be realistic. The stakes for his team, which is making its first appearance in women’s football’s biggest championship, are not the same as those for the men’s team, who became the first African team to reach the semi-finals in December and won widespread fandom.
Pedros said matching that achievement should not be the yardstick this month. “It’s not a good idea to compare them to the boys,” he said of the players.
He said Morocco’s athletes had competed in numerous international competitions before their phenomenal run in Qatar, sparking cheers across the country and accolades almost everywhere. The stars of the men’s team have been employed by some of Europe’s best clubs and learned long ago how to perform on football’s biggest arena. Everything will be new for women, he said. Success is marked by small steps. “You won’t have 20,000 Moroccan supporters in an Australian stadium,” he said.
It seems that the sports leaders of this country also approve of facing long-term matches. At the sprawling Muhammad VI Football He Complex in Sale, near Morocco’s capital Rabat, an ultra-modern facility built in 2009 is where a new generation of footballers are being trained to become tomorrow’s champions.
However, the path to elite football was not always easy for players who started playing football before such facilities were available. For players who grew up in Europe and came to the team, choosing Morocco was a complicated question of opportunity and identity. But even those who grew up in European countries with better opportunities to learn and train in the game admitted that they often faced similar resistance from their families.
20-year-old center defender Nesrin El Chad grew up in Saint-Etienne, France, a football-filled city. The daughter of Moroccan immigrants, when she attended her school, she learned a game to play against the boys at recess. She said that when her family traveled to Morocco during her summer vacation, she would buy balls from her store and play on the beach.
When she was 12, her parents realized she might have a future in football, so her mother enrolled her in a sports learning program that exempted her from some of the household chores her siblings had to do so she could rest on Sundays before games. Her father, a black belt in karate, was initially against her idea of focusing Nesrin’s future on football, until her mother told her to “let her play football,” she said. He eventually took her to every practice and every game and is now one of her most devoted supporters.
She said it was never a question which national colors she would wear if given the chance.
“I grew up feeling Moroccan,” she said. “I always wanted to play for Morocco.”
voice from home
A few hours inside Chomutov’s Ledni Stadium, close to the Czech-German border, showed how much Morocco’s success has had an impact on fans at home and abroad, and how far the team still has to go.
Most of the crowds who braved the cold to watch Morocco’s friendly in April were Czechs, including a group of loud, drunk hockey fans who came home from another event nearby and spilled out within half an hour of the game. But there were also smaller Moroccans. Most were expatriates, some traveling more than 100 miles to attend. They were filled with a sense of purpose and belonging, drawn by the urge to express their love for the country they were born in and the desire to share that feeling with others who understood them. Gender was of little importance to them.
“For me, girls and boys, it’s all the same,” said Kamal Jaber, 59, who lives about 300 miles from the city of Brno. “We’re here because we don’t want girls to feel alone.”
Jabur stood in his seat throughout the match, cheering and chanting “Dima Maghrib” (always Morocco). Although his enthusiasm was welcomed, it didn’t do much. Morocco lost to the Czech team, who did not qualify for the World Cup. A few days later, in Bucharest, they did the same in a 1-0 win against Romania, who also failed to qualify. You may have a tough night ahead.
Morocco will open their first World Cup on Monday with their toughest test to date against one of the tournament’s favorites, Germany, in Melbourne. Players know their countrymen and know their families are watching them wherever they are.
Center defender El Chad said his grandfather used to watch all of her games at his favorite cafe in Morocco and likes to brag about his granddaughter to his friends and neighbors.
El Chad knows the joy that a match like the one he’s playing this month brings. When she was watching Morocco’s victory in the men’s World Cup on TV, she jumped for joy and hurt her leg. It’s her team’s turn this month. She hopes that regardless of the consequences, it will provoke similar, if not similar, feelings.