Morocco's female football trailblazers on the brink of Olympics history

Atlas Lionesses carry 2-1 lead into play-off tie against a Zambia side boasting two of the best strikers in the world

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Last September, the most valuable strike force in women’s football landed in Morocco and abruptly, brutally dampened local expectations. Zambia were in town, and by the end of 180 minutes of sparring, spread across friendly matches in Casablanca and Rabat, they had racked up eight goals.

The Morocco national team were first softened up with a 2-0 defeat. Four days later, at the Moulay Hassan stadium, the Atlas Lionesses were crushed 6-2. There were hat-tricks for both Rachael Kundananji and Barbra Banda, strikers who have set a new bar for how much the monied upper echelons of the club game are prepared to invest in a player.

It was a chastening week. Morocco were still fresh from making history at last summer’s Women’s World Cup, the first Mena team to reach the knockout phase at that tournament, and the losses to Zambia would contribute to wholesale reflection on how much progress still needed to be made.

There were changes to personnel. Head coach Reynald Pedros was relieved of his duties, the Moroccan Football Federation replaced him with Jorge Vilda, a manager with a mixed reputation. Vilda had guided his native Spain to triumph at the 2023 World Cup but had some very public clashes with players on the way to that success.

Seven months on from the 6-2 hammering in Rabat, the decision to change coach looks close to being vindicated. On Tuesday, Morocco face Zambia at home again, with the stakes a good deal higher than they were for September’s friendlies: a place at the summer Olympic Games is on the line.

No women’s football team from North Africa or the Middle East have reached that event. The Atlas Lionesses are on the brink, again, of a major landmark and they lead this play-off tie 2-1 from Friday’s first leg in Ndola.

It is a narrow advantage and Vilda is cautious his players maintain the high level of concentration and stamina they showed in Zambia.

“We showed great commitment to get a positive result and that gives us confidence,” said Vilda. “But Zambia really intensified the pressure in the second half, where the ball was mainly in our half of the pitch and they made problems for us, particularly at set-pieces.”

From one such, a first-half penalty from Prisca Chilufya, Khadija Er-Rmichi made one of several important saves, the Moroccan goalkeeper erasing the memory of errors that peppered that 6-2 defeat.

Friday’s was a triumph of stamina, too. Morocco’s goals came in stoppage time of each half, the first an inspired effort from distance by defender Zineb Redouani, cutting inside two close markers, glancing up to check the goalkeeper’s position and arcing in a powerful, precise right-footed strike. Tottenham Hotspur forward Rosella Ayane restored Morocco’s lead close to the final whistle.

“We had plenty of chances,” said Vilda of the first leg. “And I think we probably deserve to have at least one more goal.”

He could count up at least two promising opportunities, put off target, that fell to the industrious Ibtissam Jraidi, star of the Saudi Arabian league.

As for the newer stars of the global club game, it was a rare night for Zambia when both Banda and Kundananji drew a blank. Between them, they scored three of Zambia’s goals in the 4-3 aggregate victory over Ghana in the previous round of Olympic qualifying.

Banda has since then joined Kundananji in the very highest bracket of the most prized strikers in the sport, at least in market terms. When American club Orlando Pride signed Banda from the Chinese club Shanghai Shengli last month, they paid close to three-quarters of a million US dollars; when Kundananji moved from Madrid to Bay FC in January, the Californian club invested $860,000 in the 23-year-old’s speed and strength on the ball, a record for a women’s transfer fee.

While the Olympic showpiece would welcome individuals of their calibre, the pioneering Atlas Lionesses would also be ensured enthusiastic support in France, where the football events of the Paris Games will be spread well beyond the capital city.

Whoever qualifies gets to play their first two group matches, in late July, in Nice, well within reach of the large Moroccan communities resident in Provence and the Cote D’Azur.

But the challenge, once there, is considerable. An opening fixture against the United States, gold-medallists four times in the seven Games in which women’s football has been included; matchday two against Australia’s Matildas, semi-finalists at the last World Cup and at the Tokyo Olympics three summers ago.

The last group game would be against Germany, another previous Olympic champion, and opposition who provoke some mixed memories for Morocco. The Atlas Lionesses began the 2023 World Cup with a sobering 6-0 defeat against the Germans.

What was scarcely forecast then was that, by the end of the group phase, Morocco would have leapfrogged Germany in the table to book their place in the knockout phase, at Germany’s expense. These Lionesses are a squad on a steep learning curve but, as Zambia have already gathered, they climb it fast.

Updated: April 09, 2024, 6:05 AM