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Atlas Lionesses: The Moroccan soccer revolution and the players inspiring a generation of girls

By Alasdair Howorth for CNN

(CNN) — Ghizlane Chebbak was shocked when she picked up the phone and was greeted by Mohammed VI, the King of Morocco.

When the call came it was just hours after Morocco’s defeat by South Africa in the 2022 Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (WAFCON) final. Captain of the Morocco women’s national team, Chebbak had had to watch her opposing captain lift the trophy and then had to be taken to the stage to be given the player of the tournament award.

The last thing she was expecting was congratulations – never mind from royalty.

But there, in the bowels of the Prince Moulay Abdallah stadium, King Mohammed VI was on the other end of the line, speaking of the pride he had in the team’s achievement and comforting its captain. Not only had Morocco reached a WAFCON final for the first time, King Mohammed VI reminded Cheebak, but they had also qualified for the World Cup.

“He [King Mohammed VI] said he was so proud of the team, don’t cry, we’re happy for you,” Khadija Illa, who is president of the National Women’s Football League, told CNN after the match.

“Our king does not call everyone. It gives us a big push knowing that the king watches the women’s football.”

It was a high point of Chebbak’s winding career, one that now inspires countless girls across the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Captain, daughter and icon

The daughter of former Moroccan men’s international soccer player Larbi Chebbak, Ghizlane grew up playing predominantly with boys – like many women playing the sport – and didn’t join a girl’s team until she was a teenager.

It would not take long for her talent to be realized, as Chebbak made her debut for the national team in 2007 at the age of 17, going on to become the nation’s most capped player and top scorer.

In 2010, Chebbak made her first steps as a professional player, moving across the Sahara to Egypt where she signed for Misr El Makasa. However, when the Arab Spring reached Egypt in 2011 and all soccer was cancelled, Chebbak returned to Morocco, signing for Rabat’s AS FAR.

Since 2012 she has racked up 10 league titles with AS FAR, topping the scoring charts in six of those years – despite being a midfielder – and led her team to a first ever CAF Champions League title in 2022.

Her impact on the Moroccan women’s team has been equally dazzling.

Last summer as the Moroccan team broke African attendance records not once, but twice in the semifinal and final of the WAFCON, cries of “Chebbak! Chebbak!” were repeated throughout matches.

It was particularly meaningful for Chebbak because her father passed away in 2020, two years before his daughter would eclipse him and become a national hero.

“I always think about my father and his advice, because he was always my first supporter,” Chebbak said in an interview with the Confederation of African Football (CAF) during the tournament.

“Most people knew my father. So I did my best to pay tribute to him and to make my country proud. I am living a dream,” said Chebbak.

She certainly did that. A stroll through any of Morocco’s major cities reveals the ubiquity of Chebbak’s image. Her visage is plastered on billboards, the face of various advertising campaigns along with male soccer superstars like Achraf Hakimi and Hakim Ziyech.

Chebbak’s legend has only grown this summer in leading the Atlas Lionesses at their first ever World Cup. Morocco’s Women’s World Cup appearance is also a first for an Arab or Muslim nation.

Despite the baptism of fire that Germany handed Morocco in the first game of the tournament in a 6-0 defeat, Chebbak the led the team to wins against South Korea and Colombia, sending Morocco through to the knockout stage of the tournament. Morocco now plays France on Tuesday.

A fight for recognition

When Chebbak first stepped out in an Atlas Lionesses shirt, an appearance at the World Cup would have been unimaginable.

The team had only qualified for two WAFCONS, in 1998 and 2000, where they conceded 25 goals in six games and AS FAR, the team Chebbak would go on to dominate club soccer with, had not even founded their women’s side yet.

One of those fighting for change was Illa, who is now president of a club in her home city of Laâyoune, which is more than 1,000 kilometers south of Rabat in the Sahara.

Like Chebbak, Illa grew up predominantly playing with boys. Frustrated with the lack of women’s soccer, Illa and a few friends set up a team of their own.

“We fought for everything. For stadiums, for training facilities, for financial support, to travel to other cities to have matches there,” remembers Illa.

After retiring from playing, Illa became AMFF Laayoune’s club president, helping make them the leaders in women’s soccer in Morocco and the last team to win a league title before Chebbak and AS FAR began to dominate.

In 2014 when Fouzi Lekjaa was appointed president of the Royal Moroccan Football Federation (FRMF), Illa began meeting with him, lobbying him to invest in women’s soccer like they had in the men’s game.

That investment finally came in 2017, while the FRMF also organized friendlies for the team, as well as creating Under-17 and Under-20 teams and scouting the diaspora for Moroccan talent abroad.

The National Women’s Football League launched for the 2020/21 season. There is a national top division and a regional second tier, both of which are fully funded by the government and federation who pay the salaries of players, coaches and staff of the clubs.

As of now, Morocco is the only country in the world with two professional tiers of women’s soccer.

Inspiring a generation in Morocco and beyond

Despite that professionalization, no one in Morocco could have expected to see the success on the pitch so quickly – both at club and international level.

Chebbak and AS FAR won the 2022 CAF Women’s Champions League final in the same stadium where Morocco lost the WAFCON final, while the profile of women’s soccer has only grown at the World Cup, following the Moroccan men’s team’s success when they became the first African and Arab nation to reach the semifinals of a World Cup.

One of the breakout stars of the team at the 2023 Women’s World Cup has been Nouhaila Benzina. Not only is she the defender who came into the side after the 6-0 defeat by Germany and helped the team then keep two clean sheets, but she also became the first woman to wear a hijab at the World Cup.

For the first time in history, millions of girls and women saw someone wearing the same clothes as them, playing at a World Cup.

“I want every girl to be able to dream of being famous,” said Illa after the WAFCON. “It is my dream to make an Arabic girl win the Ballon d’Or.”

It may be too late for Chebbak to win a Ballon d’Or, but thanks to her and the barriers being broken down by the Atlas Lionesses, Illa’s dream could one day become reality.

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