[This article is part of a special dossier on Morocco in the 2022 Fifa World Cup. Read the introduction to this dossier here.]
The iconic dance of Soufiane Boufal with his mother, dressed in a Moroccan djellaba, became the staple of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar. Images of blissful celebrations with mothers punctuated the Moroccan squad’s outstanding rise to the semi-finals and culminated in a memorable acknowledgment for mothers and sons in the Royal Palace. Instigated by defender Achraf Hakimi’s rush to the stage to acknowledge his mother after a remarkable victory over Belgium, images of affectionate sons and loving mothers became part of the iconography of this world tournament, and a discourse of parental care has become part of its narrative. The Atlas Lion’s phenomenal performances on the pitch have been mediated by stories of diasporic displacement, laboring mothers, and return to the motherland. Many members of the squad dedicated their victories to their mother and expressed gratitude for her in personal stories that captivated audiences in a world cup that is now saturated by the blending of gender symbolism with Islamic spirituality.
Beyond the unapologetic postures of prayer on the pitch, it was this bond between the players and their mothers that appealed to distant followers of the World Cup across gendered sensibilities, and national affiliations. Central to the Atlas Lions’ well-deserved audiences’ earned fascination across Africa and the Middle East was the public display of this powerful connection between grateful sons and mothers sending their blessings.
Regulated by the Islamic requirement of r’da, the parents’ blessing, r’da bestows motherhood with an exceptional power that has mediated commentaries about the event's outstanding achievements. Mesmerized by this celebration of motherhood by the players, commentators pointed to the significance of these “cultural values,” “already lost in the West,” and hailed the Moroccan team for setting the example.
Beyond role modeling, however, the Atlas Lions have irreversibly transformed the masculine culture of soccer by blurring the gendered boundaries of hegemonic masculinity and ascribed femininity, inviting emotions, welcoming vulnerability, and naturally displaying affection on a world platform.
It seems like Morocco head coach Walid Regragui’s decision to invite mothers to Qatar provided the players with an emotional charge that propelled them to join their mothers on the stage in alcohol-free (and Muslim-family-friendly?) stadiums. Public expressions of affection for mothers became interlinked with this spectacle projecting a new culture of soccer as family-friendly and welcoming to women.
My generation of women related to soccer differently. Up to the 1990s stadiums were perceived as uncertain, uninvited male spaces, and World tournaments a source of anxiety. This world cup produced significant shifts not only in perceptions about the typical winners and the underdogs, but also in gendered sensibilities about a sport designated as a male’s field of competition and power. In admiration for the outstanding achievements of the Atlas Lions, commentators across North Africa and the Middle East hailed rujūla, masculinity, as they discussed the victories of rijāl, true males, under the big-brother type of leadership deployed by head-coach Walid Regragui. The affective bond that linked his team members to one another circulated, however, a unique sense of soccer as a family reunion, and rujula as inclusive of sentiments and vulnerability.
Throughout the tournament the gendered contract informing spatial and emotional divisions in many places in the Middle East and North Africa was disrupted by men and women sharing the spaces of spectacle, expressing joy, and shedding tears (photo). Across the MENA region, the world competition opened new spaces of sociability for women who organized collective viewing parties at home, reserved their seats in cafés, or screened the matches with neighbors, or on their children’s cell phones. From large cities with a culture of gendered mixing to the most remote and conservative areas in Morocco, women poured their exaltation into street parades, and public drum concerts. Calls posted on Facebook invited village women to congregate in the women-only spaces, open in males’ clubs. Video clips of grandmothers sitting on their sofa bed praying for the Moroccan team, and those of women reciting the Quran in front of television screens, went viral as scenes of collective prayers in Indonesia provided these scenes with geographical extension and emotional depth. Women’s overwhelming support of the Atlas Lions and investment in this world tournament has been phenomenal, pointing to more than a hunger for winning. It highlighted soccer as a new field of feminine identification.
In the past decade, young women’s infatuation with soccer in Morocco induced a massive program for training by the Royal Moroccan Football Federation (RMFF)—the institution credited also for the remarkable performance of the Atlas Lions and before them, the Atlas lionesses. Created in 2009, the Federation implemented a specific program for training one thousand female coaches and ninety thousand women players, by 2024. This is a grassroots program that takes ground in schools, clubs, and neighborhood stadiums, blurring any gendered differences between male and female soccer. To foster this program the FMFF created the Women’s Football Academy granting equal access to sports facilities for women.
These investments paid off when the women’s club of ASFAR, (Association Sportive des Forces Armées Royales) surpassed the expectations of the Academy by cumulating titles, before stealing the limelight during the CAF Women's Champions League in November 2022. The Atlas Lioness finished as runners-up to South Africa winning the CAF Women's Africa Cup of Nations. The Moroccan squad will also be the first woman team representing Africa and Arab-speaking nations in the forthcoming FIFA Women’s World Cup to be held in Australia and New Zealand in 2023. Commenting on this attainment Captain Ghizlaine Chebbak, also named player of the tournament, underplayed respectability by declaring “we had to honour women’s football to show the parents of all the girls that is it possible to succeed through sport and still be adored by the public.”
Now that the dream of decolonizing soccer has receded after Morocco’s defeat to France, what is left of this world tournament?
My own perception of soccer considerably shifted after watching the last matches of the World Cup from Fes, a conservative city usually turned indoors. After every new victory, women poured into the street in jubilation for a team that made dreams come true and winning against the powerful a possibility. The euphoria that accompanied the matches disrupted life as usual infusing soccer’s cultural politics into women’s lives. Women’s daily activities and work became punctuated by the timing of the matches that they welcomed with prayers and screams of ecstasy, as neighbors congregated around the largest screen in the building. Soccer became the point of juncture for socializing and for political discussions about the West and us, Islamophobia, alcohol, and harassment-free spaces, and for remembering the last tournaments and conspiracies that “will never let us enjoy a full win,” like one of my neighbors put it.
 https://m.facebook.com/story.phpstory_fbid=pfbid02KSFS9i4iC6vikNLYejUMdayPkPyY92EC1mqtGrFA4JBMD5A9wVWds4XPWXpJNyJGl&id=1140607907&mibextid=qC1gEa; https://web.facebook.com/saadiya.elbahi/posts/pfbid0FiLBwNrvFLP9vwb6rcQB5TWKPk7osRRM6h3KBMJX3zrFTJrq8HXqRr49L9FcWxYGl
On Islamic feminists’ perceptions of motherhood, see Zakia Salime's Between Feminism and Islam (Minnesota: The University of Minnesota Press, 2011).
 This interview with Walid Regragui set the tone for his conception of coaching. https://fb.watch/i2qoR7LJ3-/?mibextid=j8LeHn
 Morocco set sight on FIFA women world cup after men shine in Qatar. https://www.fifa.com/fifaplus/en/articles/morocco-set-sights-on-fifa-womens-world-cup-after-men-shine-in-qatar