Morocco’s fairytale Women’s World Cup was dashed by France at Hindmarsh Stadium as Les Bleues set up a clash against the Matildas in the tournament’s Quarter Finals stage.
Morocco entered its Round of 16 clash against France after a rollercoaster journey in Group H saw it become the first Arab nation to not just appear in a FIFA Women’s World Cup, but also the first to qualify for the Knockout Stage of the competition.
The Atlas Lionesses were thrashed to the tune of six goals by Germany in their tournament debut, before consecutive gutsy one-goal victories saw them qualify for the next round of the competition, alongside Colombia, over Die Nationalelf.
Reynald Pedros’ side entered its clash against France, a side ranked fifth in the FIFA World Rankings, with nothing to lose, but with a chance to upset a superpower of world football. Tony Gustavsson and his Matildas no doubt had their eyes on this clash, with the winner earning the right to face the co-hosts of the tournament in a Quarter-Final clash in Brisbane on Saturday.
Even more significantly for Morocco, a country with a Muslim majority population, this match set up a clash against a country that has banned the hijab for athletes, which makes the sport inaccessible for thousands of female footballers who choose to cover themselves up for religious reasons. On the Moroccan side, a team full of Muslim footballers was represented all around the world by Nouhaila Benzina, the first footballer to wear a hijab in a Women’s World Cup since the organisation overturned its own ban on the garment in 2014.
Benzina and her centre-back partner Nesryne El Chad had their hands full from kick-off, the defensive pairing needing to intervene on multiple occasions to break up a fluid French attack.
After surviving an array of warning shots, the Moroccan net was finally breached in the 15th minute after overlapping left wing-back Sakina Karchaoui exchanged passes with Selma Bacha before delivering a perfect cross to Kadidiatou Diani who nodded the ball into an empty net.
Panic began setting in on Morocco’s backline which became clear when goalkeeper Khadija Er-Rmichi and defender Nouhaila Benzina got in each other’s way when attempting to clear a cross two minutes later. The duo completed their defensive duties but were powerless to stop France’s onslaught minutes later.
French captain Wendie Renard relished the time and space she was given on the ball and in the 20th minute, through an effortless chip, she picked out the roaming Kenza Dali in the heart of the midfield. The midfielder’s flick sent the goalscorer Diani on her way into the box before the forward cut the ball back to Dali who made no mistake to pick out Er-Rmichi’s bottom corner to double her side’s score.
Unlike its opposition, Hervé Renard’s side was keen to press its opponents into errors, and that is exactly what Diani, who was already involved in two goals at this point, did in the 23rd minute when she chased what seemed like a lost cause.
The forward pursued Moroccan centre-back Nesryne El Chad, who was trying to shield a ball for a goal kick, all the way to the touchline but when the defender realised the ball did not have enough pace on it she attempted to clear it.
The stubborn Diani was able to smother the attempted clearance and the ball fell kindly to the feet of Eugénie Le Sommer who instinctively recorded her side’s third, effectively sealing the match heading into the break.
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With nothing to lose at three goals down, Morocco showed a renewed interest in attacking France, which caught Les Bleues by surprise as they let their opponents in behind on a couple of occasions after the restart. As expected, the French recovered their grasp on the match and began overwhelming Morocco through their varied attacking style once again.
Before she was substituted to a rousing standing ovation by the French supporters, Eugénie Le Sommer found the back of the net for a second time after Vicki Bècho beat her marker in Zineb Redouani to find the veteran forward unmarked in the back post, concluding the scoring in a one-way encounter as France sealed a Quarter-Final match against Australia in Brisbane.
Despite the night ending in disappointment for the Atlas Lionesses, coach Reynald Pedros contextualised the team’s pain with its overperformance in the tournament, even drawing a parallel with Morocco’s Men’s National Team that made the Semi-Final stage of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
“It is an adventure that has been absolutely exceptional. I would even say that it is something that was unthinkable to say that Morocco was going to get to qualify from the group stages to the Round of 16,” Pedros said.
“I actually think, and this sincerely speaking, that coming to the Round of 16 with the Moroccan Women’s Team for the first time in this World Cup, this is worth the Moroccan Men’s Team getting to the Semi-Final.
“Let’s not forget that three years ago we were only just putting a women’s team together in Morocco, therefore let’s not take away from what we’ve done and how worthy these players are.”
On the winner’s side, Hervé Renard congratulated Morocco but was pleased to see his side score “four blinders” against an underdog in a tournament where many teams have struggled to put away the lower-ranked sides.
“Congratulations to Morocco, it is a great achievement to make the Round of 16, but the French team showed how serious we can be,” Renard said in his post-match press conference.
While going out of his way to ensure he was not making any excuses, Renard explained that his team was not in the best physical state when it faced Australia a month ago before the tournament began.
The coach praised Australia’s Caitlin Foord and warned about the effect a home crowd can have, stating that he wants his players focused so they can inflict to the co-hosts the fate that was handed to 2019 tournament hosts France by eventual winners USA.
“We know that crowd (Brisbane) will be the 12th player for them; we need to be very efficient.”
Les Bleues travel to Brisbane to take on the Matildas in a Quarter-Final matchup which is sure to be played in front of a partisan sold-out crowd.
The winner of this clash will earn the right to play for a spot in the World Cup Final, something that Australia will relish to do on home soil, and that France will equally take pleasure in depriving.