It was a magical night when Morocco slayed the giants of African women’s football and took down nine-time continental champions Nigeria.
The massive semifinal clash at a heaving, pulsating Moulay Abdellah Sports Complex was a chance for Nigeria to confirm their continental supremacy in one of their biggest tests, and for Morocco’s Atlas Lionesses it was a chance to write their own history.
From the moment this huge semifinal clash was confirmed, the tension was at fever pitch and excitement levels were through the roof in the host country.
The two teams arrived at the stadium at almost the same time last night, around 19h13 for the 21h00 kickoff.
First off the bus and onto his pre-match CAF TV duties, Nigeria coach Randy Waldrum said he has studied Morocco closely and was impressed with their style of play and their unity.
A relaxed Morocco coach, Reynald Pedros, arrives at the stadium and faces up to the microphone three minutes later, saying the match would be defined by small details and that he hoped the 50,000 fans expected at the stadium “can push us towards victory”.
The Nigerian players are the more upbeat and vocal heading to the changerooms, invoking the Lord’s support in their songs sung in Yoruba. The Morocco players in turn enter the stadium without saying a word, deep in concentration and thought, looking straight ahead with their headphones in their ears.
At exactly 19h:21pm, the Moroccans take to the pitch to sample the atmosphere and the applause of the fans, who are already starting to fill the stands in great numbers.
The two teams return for the warm-ups little less than an hour before kick-off of the meeting, with the Super Falcons greeted by whistles and hisses from the partisan crowd, who in turn raise the decibel levels as their team takes to the pitch… The scene is set.
The choreographed phone flashes in the stands starts even before kickoff this time, as the Moroccan fans light up the stands and create the most incredible atmosphere.
At 20h48pm Morocco’s substitutes and technical team take their place on the bench, raising their arms and clenched fists to the crowd.
At 20:52 the flags of the two countries are set up on the field and a minute later, the 22 actresses who will soon play the leading roles enter the field to the applause of the fans.
The stadium is full, the match is sold out. Pedros’ wishes have been was granted as a record attendance of 45,562 fans have packed into the stadium… the biggest crowd ever at a women’s football match on the African continent.
There is fantastic, electric chemistry between the supporters, players and Morocco’s technical staff.
The players of Morocco embrace and give each other final instructions, while the Nigerians choose to make a final prayer before kickoff.
Every Nigerian touch is greeted by Moroccan whistles, as a tense match gets going.
The now familiar “chebka” rings out in the stands on the half hour as the home team will their players on to score
Nigeria’s star player Rasheedat Ajibade comes close for the Super Falcons, giving hope to the small but vocal Nigerian crowd just behind the players’ bench.
Nigeria maintain the pressure, but they find Morocco goalkeeper Khadija Errmichi in superb form.
There is no separating the teams at the break.
When they return for the second half, despite her tender age there is no mistaking the leadership qualities of Fatima, who is in deep conversation with Nesryne El Chad.
There is drama in the 48th minute as the game is stopped following a nasty foul by Halimatu Ayinde on Rosella Ayane.
Referee Maria Rivet consults the VAR and gives Ayinde her marching orders, to the despair of the Nigerians and the delight of the home fans.
The Nigerians are furious and Ayinde distraught, but she has to leave the pitch.
The Moulay Abdellah sports complex is on fire, an insane atmosphere in the stands as Morocco push for a goal.
In the 60th minute, though, the Moroccan fans are stunned as Nigeria score, Uchenna Kanu poking home after a goalmouth scramble.
Just six minutes later there’s pandemonium in the crowd, as Sanaa Mssoudy equalizes for Morocco as the fans embrace, congratulate, sing for and applaud their players.
There is absolute bedlam when Super Falcons star, Rasheedat Ajibade is also given her marching orders for a foul after a VAR check to reduce Nigeria to just nine players.
The Moroccans push desperately for the winner against Nigeria’s diminished team, but Cynthia Nnadozie, the goalkeeper of Nigeria, brilliantly denies the home team.
The Nigerians survive some desperate moments and penalty appeals, but somehow hang on as the game ends 1-1.
In extra time the Moroccans lay siege to the Nigerian goal, but somehow the resilient Nigerians with their two-player disadvantage doggedly hang on.
Moroccan coach Pedros grows increasingly anxious, while his opposite number Randy Waldrum can’t contain the tension.
Goalkeeper Nnadozie remains impregnable and in the 110th minute, Nigeria nearly shock the home crowd as Gift Nyakno’s shot agonizingly hits the crossbar.
Extra time finished with the score still deadlocked at 1-1, with a penalty shootout needed to decide this titanic clash.
In the shootout, every Nigerian spot kick is accompanied by the whistles and the boos of the Moroccans, while for the Moroccans it is only applause, oles and encouragement.
There is hysteria in the stadium when Moroccan goalkeeper Errmichi’s stops Nigeria’s second penalty kick and pushed out Onumonu Chukwufunmnaya’s penalty.
The Moroccans remained ice cool and unerring with their spot kicks, with Onumonu’s kick the only miss of the shootout as Morocco emerged 5-4 victors after Ayane’s decisive kick sent the delirious home team into the final.
Among Moroccans, there is unbridled euphoria as this group of Atlas Lionesses wrote incredible new pages in the history of Moroccan women’s football.
After qualifying for the World Cup, they are now in the final, having eliminated the most successful selection in the history of the competition.
The ecstatic president of the FRMF, Fouzi Lekjaa, went down onto the pitch to congratulate the Lionnesses.
Waldrum paid tribute to the determination of all his players, saying “we tried to win, we tried everything. When you are outnumbered, it is logical that you start to defend. We held on, but in the end its football”.
Pedros and Waldrum shared a warm embrace at the end of the match, sportsmanship prevailing even in the most heated cauldron of battle.
Pedros could not hide his joy and relief in his post match press conference, saying “I want to thank the fans, the atmosphere helped us a lot it was amazing they were the 12th, 13th or even 14th player tonight. We dedicate this qualification to them.”
The Moroccan players dance and sing their way through the mixed zone for interviews after the match, draped proudly in Moroccan flags like the “Super Women” they are.
Morocco is in the final. They will now face South Africa, who won against Zambia earlier on Monday at the Mohammed V sports complex in Casablanca.
Morocco’s date with history is on 21h00 local time on Saturday at what will be a heaving, passionate Moulay Abdellah Sports Complex in Rabat.
Buckle up, it promises to be a sensational night on a tournament that will forever live on in memory….