Atlas Lionesses: How the Moroccan soccer players started a revolution and inspired a whole generation of girls

Ghizlane Chebbak was shocked when the King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, answered the phone when she picked it up.

When the call came, it had only been a few hours since Morocco lost the 2022 Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (WAFCON) final to South Africa. Chebbak was captain of the Morocco women’s national team. She had to watch the other team’s captain lift the trophy, and then she had to be taken to the stage to receive the player of the tournament award.

She didn’t expect any kind of praise at all, let alone from royalty.

But there, in the Prince Moulay Abdallah stadium, King Mohammed VI was on the other end of the line, talking about how proud he was of what the team had done and trying to comfort the captain. King Mohammed VI reminded Cheebak that Morocco had not only made it to a WAFCON final for the first time, 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, president of the National Women’s Football League, told CNN after the game.

“Not everyone gets a call from our king. The fact that the king watches women’s football gives us a big boost.”

It was the highlight of Chebbak’s long and winding career, and it still inspires many girls in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Captain, daughter, and a big deal

Ghizlane’s father, Larbi Chebbak, was a former Moroccan men’s international soccer player. Like many women who play soccer, she grew up playing mostly with boys and didn’t join a girl’s team until she was a teen.

Chebbak played for the national team for the first time in 2007 when she was only 17 years old. She went on to become the country’s most-capped player and top scorer.

In 2010, Chebbak became a professional player for the first time. She moved across the Sahara to Egypt and signed with Misr El Makasa. But when the Arab Spring hit Egypt in 2011, soccer was stopped and Chebbak went back to Morocco and signed with Rabat’s AS FAR.

Since 2012, she has won 10 league titles with AS FAR. Even though she is a midfielder, she has been the top scorer in six of those years. In 2022, she led her team to its first-ever CAF Champions League title.

The effect she has had on the Moroccan women’s team has been just as bright.

Cheers of “Chebbak! Chebbak!” were heard during both the semifinal and the final of the WAFCON last summer, when the Moroccan team broke African attendance records not once, but twice.

It was especially important to Chebbak because her father died in 2020, two years before she became a national hero and took his place.

Chebbak told the Confederation of African Football (CAF) during the tournament, “I always think about my father and the advice he gave me, because he was always my first fan.”

“Almost everyone knew my dad. So, I did everything I could to honor him and make my country proud. “I’m living my dream,” Chebbak said.

She did that for sure. A walk through any of Morocco’s big cities will show you that Chebbak’s image is everywhere. Her face is on billboards, and she is the face of ad campaigns with male soccer stars like Achraf Hakimi and Hakim Ziyech.

This summer, Chebbak’s fame has grown even more because she led the Atlas Lionesses to their first-ever World Cup. Morocco is the first Arab or Muslim country to play in the Women’s World Cup.

Even though Germany beat Morocco 6-0 in the first game of the tournament, Chebbak led the team to wins against South Korea and Colombia, which sent Morocco to the next round of the tournament. France is now Morocco’s opponent on Tuesday.

When Chebbak first put on an Atlas Lionesses shirt, it would have been unthinkable for her to play in the World Cup.

The team had only qualified for two WAFCONs, in 1998 and 2000. In those two tournaments, they gave up 25 goals in six games, and Chebbak’s future club team, AS FAR, didn’t even have a women’s team yet.

Illa was one of the people who fought for change. She is now the president of a club in her hometown of Laayoune, which is in the Sahara more than 1,000 kilometers south of Rabat.

Illa spent most of her childhood playing with boys, just like Chebbak. Illa and a few of her friends got tired of how few women’s soccer teams there were, so they made their own.

“We went to war for everything. For stadiums, places to train, financial support, and the ability to travel to other cities to play games there,” Illa remembers.

After Illa stopped playing soccer, she became the club president of AMFF Laayoune. She helped them become the best women’s soccer team in Morocco and the last team to win a league title before Chebbak and AS FAR took over.

When Fouzi Lekjaa became president of the Royal Moroccan Football Federation (FRMF) in 2014, Illa started meeting with him to ask him to put as much money into women’s soccer as they did in men’s soccer.

The money finally came in 2017, and the FRMF also set up friendlies for the team, made Under-17 and Under-20 teams, and looked for Moroccan talent abroad among the diaspora.

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

As of right now, Morocco is the only country in the world where women’s soccer is played at two professional levels.

Inspiring a whole generation in Morocco and other places

Even though they became professionals, no one in Morocco could have predicted how quickly they would do well on the field, both for their club and for their country.

Chebbak and AS FAR won the 2022 CAF Women’s Champions League final in the same stadium where Morocco lost the WAFCON final. Since the Moroccan men’s team became the first African and Arab team to reach the World Cup semifinals, women’s soccer has become more popular at the World Cup.

Nouhaila Benzina has been one of the team’s biggest stars at the 2023 Women’s World Cup. She was the defender who came in after the team lost 6-0 to Germany and helped them keep two clean sheets. She was also the first woman at the World Cup to wear a hijab.

For the first time in history, girls and women saw someone playing in the World Cup who wore the same clothes as them.

“I want every girl to be able to dream of being famous,” Illa said after the WAFCON. “My dream is for a girl from the Middle East to win the Ballon d’Or.”

Chebbak may be too old to win a Ballon d’Or, but Illa’s dream could come true one day because of her and how the Atlas Lionesses broke down barriers.

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