PERTH, Australia (AP) — After playing their part by edging Colombia 1-0, Morocco’s Atlas Lionesses huddled on the pitch in Perth to follow the end of the Germany-South Korea group-stage finale at the Women’s World Cup and hope it remained tied.
“We had the phone and we started praying. We were praying while we were watching the game,” said midfielder Anissa Lahmari, who scored Morocco’s winning goal in first-half stoppage time on Thursday. “Afterwards it was just a complete explosion of joy.”
Cue celebrations, both in Morocco and other parts of the Arab world.
In one of the most unexpected outcomes in the last days of the group stage, Morocco advanced to the knockout round in second place behind Colombia while No. 2-ranked Germany failed to advance for the first time at the tournament.
Morocco is the first Arab or North African nation to qualify for the Women’s World Cup and now the first to advance beyond the group stage. That’s something none of the other seven tournament newcomers managed to do.
And it all started with a thumping 6-0 loss to Germany. While the Moroccans recovered to win their next two games, Germany lost 2-1 to Colombia and then was held 1-1 by South Korea when it needed a win in Brisbane to avoid elimination.
“When we had won the match, the most stressful thing was the other match,” Morocco coach Reynald Pedros said.
The last two group games started at the same time on opposite sides of the Australian continent but stoppage time in Brisbane lasted longer.
“We waited, and then the good news arrived. It was incredible,” Pedros said.
If Morocco’s qualification for the Women’s World Cup inspired a generation, this run to the knockout stage will cement a legacy for the Atlas Lionesses.
The win over South Korea last weekend was historic for the team, for Ibtissam Jraïdi scoring the Morocco’s first World Cup goal, and for another significant milestone — defender Nouhaila Benzina became the first player to wear a Hijab in a World Cup game at the senior level.
“After the first match of the tournament, I think 98% of people thought it was over, apart from us,” Pedros said. “We thought we could do something, because football is magic.
“We know that emotions and hard work can lead to good things. If we are at the next stage, it’s because we deserve it, for all the hard work.”
The game against Colombia was an even contest right through the first half until Jraidi was fouled in the penalty area in the dying seconds before the break. Ghizlane Chebbak’s penalty attempt was saved, but Lahmari swooped on the rebound to put her team ahead of Colombia — and, just as importantly, ahead of Germany in the standings.
Colombia had its best scoring chance in the 59th minute, when 18-year-old Linda Caicedo served a ball to the far post, which Daniela Montoya one-timed to the left of goalkeeper Khadija Er-Rmichi. The Moroccan ‘keeper made a reflex kick save, blocking the ball with just the front edge of her right cleat.
In the 69th, Caicedo, after a long run, stopped and leaned on the field barrier, reaching down to her left ankle and foot. She appeared hobbled for several minutes but stayed in the match.
WHY IT MATTERS
Moroccan soccer fans have had plenty of celebrate with their national teams at the most recent World Cups. The Atlas Lionesses created history just by qualifying, and then just by scoring their first win. Beating Colombia to knock Germany out of the tournament was another level.
Morocco’s men’s team also made World Cup history last year. In the 2022 men’s World Cup, the Atlas Lions advanced to the round of 16 for the first time since 1986 and became the first African or Arab nation to reach a World Cup semifinal.
Colombia wins its group for the first time in team history and is in the knockout rounds for the first time since 2015.
IN THEIR OWN WORDS
Morocco’s fans “are going to support us one more time. We love them, we cherish them, we feel they’re behind us. It gives us strength. Well done to all the girls and we’re continuing on our merry way.” — Reynald Pedros, Morocco coach.
“It was an intense game and a very strategic game. We lost because of a mistake we made in the goal area, with the penalty.” — Nelson Abadía, Colombia coach.
Morocco, as the Group H runner-up, will play Group F winner France in Adelaide on Tuesday. Colombia will play Group F runner-up Jamaica the same day in Melbourne.
Anna Ruth Riggins contributed to this report from Sydney. Riggins is a student at the University of Georgia’s Carmical Sports Media Institute.
AP Women’s World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/fifa-womens-world-cup