Morocco’s dream of becoming the first Arab country to win the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations ended at the final hurdle on Saturday in Rabat with a 2-1 defeat against South Africa, but the nation was proud of their achievements.
All the goals came in the second half. Hildah Magaia opened the scoring for South Africa just after the hour and the forward extended Banyana Banyana’s lead 10 minutes later. The home team had 50,000 fans in the Prince Moulay Abdallah Stadium on their feet after 81 minutes as Rosella Ayane pulled a goal back but the Atlas Lionesses were unable to get the all-important second as South Africa won their first continental title in their sixth final appearance.
Despite the defeat, the tournament has been a huge success on and off the pitch with Morocco by far the best performing Arab team in the competition’s 14 editions and, more importantly, securing qualification for the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, which is another first for the Arab world.
Morocco coach Reynald Pedros spoke for many after the game.
“They gave it their best but it was not enough,” said the Frenchman. “I am extremely proud of my team. They have achieved so much. They have honored the shirt and honored the supporters. We will deal with the defeat, but we are not disappointed with our path in the championship.”
South Africa deserved the win and almost took the lead early in what was a nervy first half from both teams with Moroccan defender Hanane Ait El-Haj clearing the ball off the line from Magaia in just the fourth minute.
It was the closest either team was to come in the first half as the hosts were pinned back and Moroccan goalkeeper Khadija Er-Rmichi had to come off her line quickly to deny the busy Magaia seven minutes before the break.
The deadlock was finally broken just after the hour. Jermaine Seoposenwe broke free down the left and pulled the ball back for Magaia and the South Korea-based star found the net with a low shot.
After 71 minutes South Africa doubled their lead. Morocco failed to deal with Karabo Dhlamini’s cross from the left allowing Magaia to nip in and finish from close range to really silence the home supporters.
Yet with 10 minutes remaining, the fans found their voices once more as Ayane pulled a goal back. Fatima Tagnaout squared the ball from the left side of the area for the Tottenham star to bury the ball in the bottom corner.
It caused the South Africans to retreat deeper and deeper but despite the pressure and the nine minutes of added time, Morocco were unable to get the all-important equalizer against the determined South African team.
“The players showed resilience,” said South Africa coach Desiree Ellis. “They wanted the trophy so badly. We played great football in the 2018 tournament but we did not come home with the medal. I’d like to take my hat off to all the players.”
Despite the disappointment for the hosts, the tournament still seems like a turning point for women’s football in Morocco.
“Morocco aren’t in the final by chance,” said Ellis. “They started their program a while ago. They have a two-tier professional league. They have a national league for under-17s. They’ve brought in a coach who won league titles in France and the Champions League and have had a lot of friendlies against top teams.”
Morocco thrilled the nation with their exploits, culminating in a dramatic semifinal victory against Nigeria that put the team on the front and back pages for the first time in history. This passionate football country has embraced the Atlas Lionesses with the players now household names.
Captain Ghizlane Chebbak certainly is. She was named as the tournament’s best player.
“No-one believed in us at the beginning of the competition,” Chebbak said. “But I’m proud that we have been able to change the perceptions of people. All the players are glad that women’s football has attracted so many people and we’re happy that we’ve been able to reach out to fans who’ve seen us play and the effort that we make on the field.”
There is still plenty more international action for Morocco as the next tournament is the really big one.
“Now it is time to prepare for the 2023 World Cup,” said coach Pedros, who spoke to King Mohamed VI after the game. “There weren’t any weak teams in the African Nations Cup, but the World Cup will be more difficult.”
A nation will be watching once again.