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Atlas Lionesses create history in Perth


Thursday night in Perth will forever be a core memory for those who attended the match and Moroccans watching back home.

Morocco faced a near-impossible task; a win-or-go-home scenario against Colombia, who to that point had been one of (if not the) star teams of the tournament so far.

A heavy 6-0 defeat in the first match against Germany had been a brutal reality check. Coupled with an inappropriate question from a BBC journalist directed at Ghizlane Chebbak on the sexuality of her teammates, the Atlas Lionesses’ debut at a FIFA Women’s World Cup was quickly turning into sour.

However, Morocco would respond in perfect fashion. In the sixth minute of their match against South Korea, Ibtissam Jraidi launched herself at Hanane El-Haj’s low cross, and managed to flick the ball into the far corner of the net to create history as the first Moroccan and Arab woman to score at a World Cup. Amazingly, Morocco managed to hold onto their one-goal lead, taking three points and a clean sheet from the 2022 Asian Cup runners-up, and breathing life into their tournament hopes.

However, things were complicated slightly by Colombia’s 2-1 over many people’s favourites to top the group, Germany. With Las Chicas Superpoderosas leading the group, Germany and Morocco were tied with three points each, but the European side had a significant +10 goal difference advantage over the North African nation, with South Korea to play. This meant that to have any hope of qualifying, Morocco would need to either better Germany’s result, or beat Colombia by four goals – both of which looked like long shots.

That being said, head coach Reynald Pedros was adamant that whilst his team had a mathematical chance, the goal was still to get out of the group.

“The expectations are simple; we must find a way to win.”

For all of Pedros’ bullish pre-match comments, even he conceded his side would need ‘a little bit of luck’ to progress to the Round of 16.

It wasn’t long after both matches had kicked off, that the bit of luck arrived. In Brisbane, So-Hyun Cho was played through on goal after just three minutes, and calmly slotted the ball past the German goalkeeper to give South Korea a shock lead. Watching on TVs in the media tribune, the Moroccan press celebrated wildly, before trying to pass the message down to the team staff below.

There was no reaction from the Moroccan bench. Pedros and co were focused on their own match, to which they had made a good start. Jraidi was already finding space to run into, and matching the Colombian defenders for physicality and forcing Catalina Perez into some saves.

For all of the Moroccan pressure, they were still struggling to create clear cut opportunities as the half went on. Then news of an Alexandra Popp goal for Germany filtered through, and suddenly Morocco were once again facing elimination.

However, the glum faces in the media tribune didn’t stay that way for long. Jraidi was brought down in the penalty area, and Morocco were gifted the chance to take the lead at the end of the first half. Whilst a couple of Colombian players protested to the referee, a few more walked over towards the penalty spot, attempting to scuff it. A number of Moroccan players then intervened, creating a human shield around it.

Once the referee had restored control of the match, Chebbak was met with a chorus of whistles from the majority Colombian crowd as she placed the ball down on the spot. The Moroccan press’ joy had now turned to anxious prayer as she took a few steps back from the ball. There were then shrieks of despair as Perez guessed correctly, and got a firm hand to the shot.

Players from both sides rushed to reach the rebound, and after a chaotic couple of seconds, Anissa Lahmari was able to get the decisive touch and prod the ball over the line from close range, before being chased by her teammates on the pitch and from the bench as she wheeled away in celebration.

Whilst the Colombian fans and press were stunned, the Moroccan journalists were in a state of jubilant disbelief. During half time they posed for photographs with each other, still celebrating that goal.

Upon the restart, Colombia came out with far more intensity. Mayra Ramirez and star player Linda Caicedo had switched flanks, after the latter had been well-marshalled by Zineb Redouani for much of the first half. The pair were now getting more joy in her their new roles, firing in some dangerous crosses and forcing Khadija Er-Rmichi into some good work. For the Moroccans following on in the stands, horror was followed by relief as Popp had a second goal disallowed for offside in Brisbane.

Both matches descended into states of game management, as Morocco and South Korea both looked to hold onto what they had. Lengthy stoppages for injury pushed both games deep beyond the allotted nine minutes of added time. The first full-time whistle to be blown was in Perth, and for about 10 seconds, the Moroccan players started celebrating prematurely, unaware that Germany could yet eliminate them with a single goal – a head injury for Cho had meant there was still about five more minutes left in that match.

The Moroccan press frantically waved and shouted in an effort to get the message across to their team. Eventually, the players and staff of the Atlas Lionesses gathered arm-in-arm in a circle in the centre of the pitch. The Colombian players, although beaten on the night, were celebrating their own progression with their fans.

Suddenly, the Moroccan team broke out from their circle. Some were running, some were embracing and some were on the ground rejoicing. The full-time whistle had been blown in Brisbane, and Germany had been held to a draw, giving Morocco progression into the Round of 16. The Moroccan press were also furiously hugging each other and fighting back tears. In his excitement, one knocked his chair down three rows of stairs, prompting stern words from security, but he was too overwhelmed with joy to care.

The Moroccan players stayed on the pitch for around 10 minutes, singing and dancing as they lapped up applause and celebrations from not just their own fans, but the Colombians too, who clearly respected the efforts of the Atlas Lionesses.

Pedros and Lahmari were met by whooping cheers and applause as they took their seats for the post-match press conference, Lahmari still wiping away tears. Every now and then the pair looked at each other a the smiles grew wider, still in slight disbelief of their achievements.

They both conveyed not just their delight in their comments, but that the journey can go on much further. Less than 12 months ago, we saw the Moroccan men’s national team achieve so much in Qatar, and now the women have the chance to emulate and even better the achievements of their compatriots. With a tough match against France ahead, they have their work cut out, but if this World Cup has taught has anything, it’s that there’s talent in every team at this tournament, and the established giants are not unbeatable.

 







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