Mon, Aug 27, 2018 - Page 10 News List

In Morocco, football is a men and women affair


Male and female members of the Pirates football team train in Rabat, Morocco, on July 29.

Photo: AFP

Under the scorching summer sun in Rabat, coach Ichtar Zahraoui bellows directions to the Pirates, young Moroccan men and women learning to play American football together on the gridiron.

Focused and sweaty, 30 players gather every Sunday to practice the sport, an unusual scene in a nation obsessed with soccer, the variety of the game far more commonly played across the globe.

“It’s not easy to make young Moroccans love American football,” said 39-year-old Zahraoui, who founded the Pirates men’s and women’s teams last year. “It’s an aggressive sport that requires a lot of energy, work and equipment.”

Lacking numbers and resources, they have to train together on the same modest plot of land in the heart of Rabat’s Old Town — and if that is not available, the beach. At practice the Pirates Boys and Pirates Girls sprint between cones and plough into tackling dummies, training pads and sometimes each other.

Without hesitation, the players — mostly students aged younger than 30 who are recruited by word of mouth — form mixed teams and alternate between offense and defense.

“We’re trying to make the sport known and to explain to people that football isn’t rugby,” Zahraoui said.

The breathless self-taught coach has dreams of setting up the kingdom’s “first real American football team.”

To do so, she needs the support of an “American coach and a large NFL club,” she said, referring to the National Football League in the US, with which she has had “interesting contact.”

American football made its debut in Morocco in 2012 with the creation of amateur teams in cities such as Casablanca, Rabat and Tangiers. Two years later, the men’s national team won an inaugural African championship.

In 2015, Morocco’s first women’s football team — the Black Mambas — was formed in Rabat. The sight of women playing the rough sport in the conservative Muslim society has sparked interest from Moroccan media and across social networks.

However, Zahraoui said she has not once encountered a “problem of a sexist nature” since launching the project.

Female Moroccan athletes are nothing new, she said, adding that they “have distinguished themselves in sports since the 1980s.”

“What we need are teams, a federation, coaches, referees, trainers and a championship,” she added.

For now, the Pirates prefer to play flag football, a watered-down, low-contact version of the sport that requires little equipment. The lighter touch has helped draw in participants from other sports, such as basketball and judo, who otherwise might not have joined.

“I came to watch a friend train, but the coach convinced me to come and try,” Ghita Ouassil said.

The chance encounter last year has turned the 21-year-old English literature student into a football regular.

“Before I was shy, but this sport helps develop your personality and self-control and helps you be less tense,” she said.

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