Morocco overcame a nightmare FIFA Women’s World Cup debut against Germany to claim its first victory in the tournament against South Korea.
The context of the second matchday of Group H in Adelaide mirrored the circumstances of the corresponding fixture of Group D that was played at Hindmarsh Stadium only two days earlier.
Colin Bell’s side entered the match as the favourites, with an extensive list of players with a wealth of experience on the international stage.
Meanwhile, off the back of hosting the Women’s African Cup of Nations, the rising popularity of women’s football is a new phenomenon for Morocco which entered the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup as a talented, but inexperienced side.
Potentially facing elimination if they could not earn a result, the Taegeuk Ladies obviously felt the pressure entering the encounter compared to their less-fancied counterparts who had already faced a difficult situation in this tournament.
Morocco used the flanks to stretch Korea in attack, with Sakina Ouzraoui Diki in particular making life difficult for her opponents on the right-hand side.
Only six minutes after kick-off, the Hindmarsh Stadium crowd witnessed a moment in history written by the Atlas Lionesses, when fullback Hanane Ait El Haj combined with Salma Amani before delivering a dangerous cross which striker Ibtissam Jraïdi made perfect contact with to glance home Morocco’s first FIFA Women’s World Cup goal.
The euphoria of the moment was not lost on the players, with central defender Nesryne El Chad admitting that she was in disbelief.
“I couldn’t believe we were winning! I am happy, but I think I am going to realise it tomorrow because I am just so happy!” the ecstatic defender stated after full-time.
A frustrated Colin Bell, obviously unhappy with how the game had started, even before the goal,- immediately instructed his players to revert to a system that was more familiar with Morocco’s, backing his players’ ability and experience to outperform their opponents.
Despite still looking far from perfect, South Korea grew into the game and should have levelled the score 20 minutes later when Park Eun-sun’s uncontested diving header from a Ji So-yun cross went harmlessly wide of Khadija Er-Rmichi’s goals.
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South Korea may have grown into the game, but it did not stop Morocco from creating its own chance, with both Sakina Ouzraoui Diki and Ghizlane Chebbak threatening to double their side’s score on separate occasions.
The Atlas Lionesses attacks looked a lot more cohesive than those of South Korea, who despite advancing the ball up the field, often saw passes overhit or not claimed due to breakdowns in communication.
The score remained in the favour of Morocco heading into the break and Colin Bell’s displeasure was made clear when he made two changes to his attack before the second half began, Choo Hyo-joo and Son Hwa-yeon being replaced by Moon Mi-ra and Son Hwa-yeon.
The halftime team talk combined with the substitutions to spark South Korea to a much more united performance, with the Taegeuk Ladies grasping control of the encounter which put the Atlas Lionesses under pressure and required defensive intervention multiple times.
After a save around the hour mark goalkeeper Khadija Er-Rmichi called for her teammates to slow down the game, a request which was also heeded by coach Reynald Pedros who replaced the attacking-minded Salma Amani with the defensive presence of Sarah Kassi in his side’s midfield.
Despite its increasing territorial gains, South Korea could not consistently work Khadija Er-Rmichi who had her defence to thank for a quieter night than expected.
Moroccan central defender, Nouhaila Benzina, an inspiration for many Muslim girls around the world by playing whilst wearing a hijab, put in a player of the match performance, doing everything for her side to claim its first-ever FIFA Women’s World Cup victory.
As the minutes were counting down, the defender stepped in to break down a Korean attack by committing a professional foul on Ji So-yun and apologetically accepting a booking. Her backline capably defended the set piece as it did for the majority of the night.
The chaotic nature of this match remained all the way to the closing stages when 16-year-old Korean substitute Casey Yu-Jin Phair shot just wide of the target, before Morocco’s Rosella Ayane, also coming off the bench, also missed the after finding herself one on one with goalkeeper Kim Jung-mi.
Despite throwing numbers in the box for set pieces and pressing Morocco deep into the six minutes of injury time, South Korea once again failed to find the back of the net in the 2023 edition of the FIFA Women’s World Cup, once again succumbing to a defeat.
Colin Bell’s side enters its clash against Germany as the only Group H side without a point to its name, needing multiple variables to go its way, along with a massive upset over Germany, to progress.
While Colin Bell was disappointed post-match, stating that his side did not represent itself or its nation to the level it is capable of.
Morocco’s Reynald Pedros was understandably elated with his team’s historic achievement, crediting his players’ ability to overcome the disappointment of its drubbing at the hands of Germany in the lead-up to the South Korea match.
“Obviously the 48 hours were quite difficult, the girls had their heads down, and let’s not forget they were coming up against one of the best nations in the world, but after 48 hours we were able to change our mentality and our mindset,” Pedros said.
“We started laughing again together, there were people ready to knuckle down and get to work, and I saw this change within the team, I saw that we were going to become the team we were before.
“We are here to conquer, we are hard-working, we give other teams a run for the money; we were in it to win it.”
Morocco now has the task to ground itself after its historical moment, a much more pleasant affair than recovering from a six-goal loss, and a similar performance against Colombia can see it inspire an ecstatic nation even further by qualifying, out of a tough group for the Round of 16 in the first time of asking.