It had been more than an hour since Anissa Lahmari had scored the goal that put Morocco in front, the one that was poised to deliver another historic win for her team at its first Women’s World Cup.
But it was not over yet. And so Morocco’s players had to wait.
They huddled together around a staff member’s cellphone as Germany bombed balls upfield, as it tried to thread passes through a stingy South Korea defense and as it lofted hopeful ones over it. A Germany goal, any goal, would save its World Cup and dash Morocco’s improbable dream of advancing to the knockout rounds. The minutes ticked on, and on, and then suddenly, it was over.
Morocco had beaten Colombia, 1-0. Germany had not beaten South Korea, 1-1. And after all the minutes, and all the waiting, that was all it took: Morocco, a team in its first World Cup, a team that had never won a game in the tournament a week ago but now has won two in a row, was through. And it didn’t seem to know what to do.
When the referee’s whistle blew in the Germany game, Morocco’s players broke their huddle and ran. They ran in search of hugs. They ran to find teammates. A few ran just to run.
Morocco had already won, of course. The first North African team to qualify for the Women’s World Cup, and the first to field a player in a hijab, its mere presence in the tournament had been an achievement, and an inspiration. Yet Morocco was interested in more than mere participation.
As one of eight first-time entrants in this year’s expanded tournament, it had arrived with a squad that was little known even to most Moroccans before it qualified on home soil last July. It had won fans and respect in its qualification journey, but even its coach knew the next step would be a big one.
“They showed us that they can fill stadiums and make Moroccans happy,” the team’s French coach, Reynald Pedros, had said before the tournament. “They did it on the African stage. Now we are hoping to do the same on the international one.”
Now that they had, Pedros didn’t seem to know what to do. He burst into tears on the field as his team and his staff celebrated their achievement. Players dropped to their knees in thanks. Others embraced. In the center of it all, seemingly lost and uncertain where to go, or who to hug next, was Pedros.
Back home, joy took over Morocco, where only seven months ago fans had filled the streets to cheer the men’s team as it made a run to the World Cup semifinals. Now, the nation may soon be cheering for its women’s squad.
In Casablanca on Thursday morning, people (mostly men) had filled cafes quietly to watch the game. There was little hope for Morocco entering the day, since Colombia led the group and Germany was widely expected to join it in the knockouts. But when South Korea scored early, and Morocco took the lead against Colombia just before halftime when Lahmari banged in the rebound of a missed penalty kick for the opening goal, fans started to hope.
In one cafe, the men inside checked their phones repeatedly, updating the score in the Germany game. A few said quiet prayers.
As a stunning victory, and an even more shocking possibility — advancement out of the group stage in the team’s first World Cup — crept closer, the stress mounted. Across the Mediterranean in France, Kenza Haloui, 34, had left work in Nice to watch the match alone while texting with her cousins in Morocco. She had grown up in Fez and played soccer her whole life before moving to Europe. When Morocco finally won, she said, “I felt so many emotions.”
At the final whistle, though, the celebrations were muted: briefs shouts of joy, some honking of car horns. And then people move on with their day.
Soumia Idba, 39, watched the game at the office in Casablanca, but couldn’t help but notice how difficult it had been to view it. “It was very hard to find a way to watch a game,” Idba said. “It wasn’t like in Qatar. Most Moroccans watch online.”
If the celebrations were subdued, though, the team’s next game may stoke more emotions: By advancing, Morocco earned a date with France in the round of 16 on Tuesday. It is the same matchup that, in December at the men’s World Cup, brought fans into the streets of Casablanca and Marrakesh and dozens of cities across North Africa and Europe. France won that day, ending the dream of Morocco’s men’s team.
The country now has a second chance. Its women’s team has something no one expected: its first.