Featured image: Firecrackers go off around the stadium at the celebration of Ittihad Tanger
By Jane Buckley
It was an odd location for an interview – claiming to want to get away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Tangier (a legitimate impulse; the narrow streets of the Medina were hard to navigate after Ramadan fast had been broken), Siham and her friend drove us outside of the main city to a Venezia Ice, a popular café/ice cream chain, which proved to be a hustling hub in and of itself.
But then again, it was an unconventional interview. I had found Siham, an ex-professional Moroccan soccer player, through another national team player, Khadija, whom I had contacted through a hail-Mary Facebook message from a roster I dug up on the Royal Moroccan Football Federation’s (FRMF) Twitter account. It sounds sketchy, I know, but there really was no easier way to get to know the subject I was reporting on: women’s soccer in Morocco. In a lethal combination of the dismal state of online information in Morocco and the general lack of interest (to put it kindly) in women’s soccer, it proved extremely difficult to find even one person to talk to about this topic. Even the secretary sitting at the front desk of the “Morocco World Cup 2022 Bid” poster-covered fortress that was the FRMF headquarters looked bemused when I asked her to put me in contact with anyone working with women’s soccer. The one contact she scribbled down for me on a piece of scrap paper never got back to me, leaving me to fish for sources in the cybersphere.
So there we were in the Venezia Ice. Siham sat across the table from me, a shimmery turquoise hijab resting comfortably on her shoulders, her lips painted a bright pink, her shining green eyes lighting up the dimly lit, crowded cafe.
She was undeniably cool–a decorated national team soccer player with an unashamedly feminine air, she was charming and charismatic. She boasted a captivating smile, which she flashed generously. She had that quality which made you want her to like you, to approve.
On top of all of that, her story seemed almost fictitious–Siham didn’t start playing soccer until she was seventeen, a testament to her innate athleticism and skill, and her accomplishments don’t end there. The interview was dominated by a detailed description of her professional career and the accolades that came with it. The conversation was a flurry of the clubs she played for and championships that came with her times on those teams. Raja De Ain Harrouda (I had to get Siham’s friend to lean across the table and write that down for me): two years, one second place trophy, one Moroccan championship. Raja Casablanca (the best Moroccan team for both men and women, I was assured): one year, one Coupe de Trône (Moroccan Throne Cup). Lefah: two years, two Coupe de Trônes, one Moroccan championship. The list went on; I could barely keep up, not just for my rusty French skills.
Siham’s story only became wilder: right as I was wrapping up the interview, I discovered a shocking plot twist in her soccer journey that neither she nor the internet have been able to ever adequately explain to me. As I was standing up to go, I mentioned a strange movie I had stumbled across deep in a google search wormhole. The movie, “Tánger Gool,” combines elements of documentaries with elements of fiction to tell the story of a Moroccan women’s soccer team that prepared for and played a game against the women’s side of Atlético de Madrid. One review of the movie describes the game “as a means to give [the Moroccan team] visibility, supporting female football and creating a bridge between cultures.” When I mentioned the movie to Siham, I wasn’t expecting much. It seemed like a strange cinematic piece from what I could tell (I couldn’t find any way to actually watch it), and probably pretty insignificant to Siham. Instead, her answer floored me. When I asked her if she had ever heard of it, she pulled up a picture on her phone: it was the poster for the movie, and she pointed to the woman on the right; it was her.
Siham (right) is featured on the poster for the documentary “Tánger Gool.”
I had expected her to not know of the movie, and instead she, and most of the members of the team she was playing on at the time, had been chosen to be in it. Moreover, she was the face of its poster. As if that wasn’t enough to make me stutter through my shaky French, her friend (who was translating my questions and her answers into Arabic and French, respectively) told me “qu’est qu’il est bizarre est qu’elles n’ont reçu aucun retour pour de leur part”: Siham and her teammates were not paid anything for their participation in this movie. They were swindled out of any money they were entitled to for the time they spent getting filmed playing soccer for a commercial project. When I cut in to clarify that I wasn’t misunderstanding, Siham re-confirmed: she had received no salary–“rien de tout,” nothing at all. Nothing at all except for, her friend interjected, “un retour.” When I asked what that meant, he expanded: by “retour,” he meant that Siham and her teammates were assured that the film had been accepted, recognized and that they should be proud of it. Essentially, they were supposed to be satisfied with the knowledge that the film was created with them in it. When I pressed for more information, a resigned smile turned up the corners of Siham’s painted lips, as if to say, ‘that’s how it works.’ It was getting late and she didn’t want to expand any further on this twisted narrative.
One could easily to chalk Siham’s success up to the level of play of Moroccan women’s soccer–maybe the bar was just set low. But that would be dismissive–of her athletic ability, of her hard work, and of the circumstances in her life that allowed her to play soccer at the level she did. Indeed, Siham had something throughout her career that many of her peers didn’t seem to have: the support of her dad. “That was the only thing that mattered,” she told me. While the rest of her family disapproved of her playing from the beginning, her dad supported her from the start, and that made all the difference.
Take Amal, a seventeen-year-old goalie on the team Siham now coaches, as a contrast. Amal befriended me when Siham took me and a fellow journalist, Jordan, along with her to Itthad Tanger’s stadium to celebrate their (the men’s team, of course) first Moroccan championship in 100+ years. The scene was electric: all of Tangier must have been in that stadium–all 45,000 seats seemed to be taken, and the energy was palpable. Two boys in front of us seemed incapable of leaving their airhorns alone; at one point, the whole crowd sent off a perfectly-timed stream of firecrackers; a small child next to me had climbed to the top of his chair and was pumping his arm along to the chants, slightly off-beat. Amal had started a conversation with me as we walked into the stadium, which we had to turn up several notches once we were inside. Yelling through the smoke and cheers, Amal told me that her father disapproved of her playing soccer, which made it hard to play, understandably. “In Morocco,” she told me, “men think a woman’s place is in the kitchen, so you can see why he wouldn’t want me playing a sport.” If it weren’t for the support of her mother, who was actually there with her at the celebration–looking small and out-of-place but determined to support her daughter–Amal told me she probably wouldn’t be on Siham’s team. And without the support of her father, it was pretty clear Amal’s career wasn’t going to advance past the youth stage she was at.
Many other Moroccan girls don’t even get the chance to play on a lower-level team like Amal’s. At the Venezia Ice, when I asked Siham what girls who don’t have the support of their fathers or mothers do, she sighed. They have to play secretly, she explained. Once they get to a high enough level, the coaches will help them tell their families, and usually by that point their families will understand and be proud of them. But what if they aren’t able to make it to that level? How can one be expected to even reach that level while hiding a major part of one’s life from one’s parents, while being taught that one’s passion is inappropriate and even dishonorable?
One moment at the stadium struck me in particular: Jordan and I were standing up, trying to keep up with the crowds’ refrains of what was clearly a team anthem. Amal was standing next to us, pumping her fists along to the tune, shouting out the lyrics along with the rest of Tangier. When the song died down for a moment, she tapped me on the shoulder. “You know,” she said, “these lyrics are all about how women aren’t allowed in a certain section of the stadium here in Tangier. It’s just for the boys.” Jordan and I must have looked visibly shocked, because she laughed at our expressions. “That’s just how it is here,” she shrugged, and turned back to the stadium, rejoining the singing.
My time with Siham and her team ended on an strange, but optimistic note. Standing in a stadium filled with Moroccan men singing the refrains of a song that invalidated her life’s work and passion, we hugged – a warm but brief embrace – so she could get back to join in with the singing of that same song. I didn’t understand it, but how could I? I was searching for some hard-hitting journalism piece, some story about a woman who played soccer despite the odds that were stacked against her, who kicked the soccer ball around to spite the patriarchy. But Siham played soccer because she loved playing soccer, it was as simple as that. And that was enough. When she bodied a man off the ball in the pick-up game she brought me to play with her in, or when she sat across from me at the coffee shop with those perfectly painted lips and carefully wrapped hijab, there were no metaphors or hidden meanings — it was just Siham existing as a coach, an ex-national team player, and a Moroccan woman.
It made me think of the United States Women’s National Team, some members of which are currently engaged in a legal battle to level the playing field, so to speak. My instinct was to question Siham and her peers, to wonder why they weren’t doing the same. But how could they be fighting for equal resources when they aren’t even respected as athletes? Furthermore, why is it the job of players like Megan Rapinoe to ensure that her experience is equal to her male counterparts’?
It’s easy to respect the twenty three Moroccan men who went to Russia for the 2018 World Cup. They had to fight for their spots on the team, travel across the world, and face some of the best teams on the planet. But to me, Siham’s story was more impressive. She brushed aside many of the questions I asked in which I fished for damning anecdotes of sexism or hardship, and instead became more animated and loquacious when I instead asked about her personal accomplishments. She was full of positive love for the game, rather than negative complaints about her (lack of) opportunities.
Khadija, the goalie I had originally found on Facebook, summed it up quite eloquently when she wrapped up our WhatsApp conversation. “J’adore le football, malgré toutes les contraintes, toutes les filles jouent au football parce qu’elles les aiment malgré l’ignorance et la difficulté.” I love soccer, despite all of the constraints. All of the women play soccer because they love the game despite the ignorance and the difficulty.
And shouldn’t it be that simple?
The women who are most affected by sexist norms and institutions are focusing their energy on loving the game of soccer. The rest of the world needs to lift them up.