Khadija Rmichi’s road to the Women’s World Cup began with a bicycle.

Rmichi, a goalkeeper, grew up in Khouribga, a mining town in central Morocco. As a girl, she tried many sports, including basketball, but was always bored with them. She was often drawn instead to the soccer played by boys in the streets. Sometimes she enjoyed just watching the games. Many days, she couldn’t resist joining in, even when she knew it would mean trouble.

“It was considered shameful to play with boys,” Rmichi, now 33, said in an interview in April. “My older brother would beat me and drag me home, and I would just go back to the street to play whenever I got a chance.”

A local coach liked her spirit. He told Rmichi that if she could find enough girls to form a team, he would train them. So she hopped on a bike and toured the side streets and playgrounds of Khouribga, looking for teammates. When it was necessary, Rmichi said, she would take her sales pitch directly into the girls’ homes, helping to persuade reluctant parents and families to let them play.

“I tried to get into other sports,” she said, “but I just wanted to play soccer.”

One of eight first-time qualifiers in the Women’s World Cup field, Morocco may not win a game playing in a group that includes former champions (Germany), Asian regulars (South Korea) and the second-best team in South America (Colombia).

But the fact that Morocco is playing in this tournament, which began Thursday in Australia and New Zealand, and that its women’s team exists at all, serves as an inspiration and a measurable source of pride at home and abroad.

Morocco is the first Women’s World Cup qualifier from North Africa, and the first from a majority Arab nation. However, its squad was little known even by most Moroccans before it hosted the event that served as the continent’s World Cup qualifying tournament on home soil last July. Because it posted victory after victory, on the other hand, the stadiums of the country began to fill with fansmany of them seeing the team play for the first time.

In a country where soccer is revered but where interest in the women’s game is a new phenomenon, that success raised the team’s profile. “They showed us that they can fill stadiums and make Moroccans happy,” said the team’s French coach, Reynald Pedros. “They did it on the African stage. Now we hope to do the same on the international stage.”

The presence of Morocco in Australia this month is a testament to the efforts to develop women’s football in the country through government investments and a concerted effort to unearth talent not only in cities such as Rabat and Casablanca but also from the vast Moroccan diaspora in France, Spain, Great Britain and the Netherlands.

That diversity was on display on a cold but joyous night earlier this year in Prague, where the team came to face the Czech Republic in a pre-World Cup exhibition match. During the evening training session, Pedros gave instructions to the group in French, and the players shouted commands and encouragement to each other in a mixture of Arabic, French and English. An interpreter stood by the field in case he was needed. During most of the practice, he was not: Most of the players then established ways to communicate even when they did not share a common language.

Their various paths were sometimes connected by similar threads. Sofia Bouftini, a 21-year-old who grew up in Morocco, initially faced resistance from her family when she expressed an interest in taking soccer more seriously. Like Rmichi, she fell in love with the sport playing against boys longing to be part of a real team.

“My grandmother advocated for me and convinced my father,” she said. “My father was against it.” He later relented, Bouftini said, when he realized how talented she was.

Sitting in his office this spring, Pedros, 51, warned that expectations for his team must remain realistic. The stakes for his squad, a first-time qualifier to the biggest championship in women’s soccer, are not the same as those for the men’s team, which won fans far and wide in December as it became the first African team to advance to the semi-finals.

Matching that feat shouldn’t be the measuring stick this month, Pedros said. “Comparing them to the boys,” he said of his players, “is not a good thing.”

Morocco’s men had participated many times in international tournaments, he pointed out, before staging the amazing run in Qatar that produced cheers at home and praise almost everywhere else. The stars of the men’s team are employed by some of the best clubs in Europe, and so long ago they learned how to perform on the biggest football stages. For the women, he said, everything will be new. Success will be marked in smaller steps. “There won’t be 20,000 Moroccan supporters in the stadiums in Australia,” he said.

Playing the long game is something the country’s sports leaders seem to acknowledge. On the vast Mohammed VI football complex in Salé, close to the capital of Morocco, Rabat, ultra-modern facilities built in 2009 are where the new generations of football players are being prepared to become tomorrow’s champions.

But for those who started out before such facilities were available, the road to elite football was not always easy. For the players, who came to the team after growing up in Europe, choosing Morocco was a complex question of opportunity and identity. But even those who had better opportunities to learn the game and train in the European countries where they grew up admitted that they often faced similar resistance from their families.

Nesryne El Chad, a 20-year-old central defender, grew up in Saint-Étienne, France, a city steeped in soccer. The daughter of Moroccan immigrants, she learned the game playing against boys during recess when she was at school. When her family traveled to Morocco on summer vacation, she said she would buy a ball from a store and play on the beach.

When she was 12, her parents realized she might be talented enough to have a future in soccer, so her mother enrolled her in a sports studies program and made sure she was excused from some of the household chores her siblings had to do so she could rest on Sundays before games. Her father, a black belt in karate, initially resisted the idea of ​​a soccer-focused future for Nesryne — until, she said, his own mother told him to let her play. He ended up taking her to every practice, and every game, and is now one of her staunchest supporters.

There was never a question, she said, she would wear the colors of the country if she had the chance.

“I grew up feeling Moroccan,” she said. “I always wanted to play for Morocco.”

A few hours in the Ledni Stadium in Chomutov, close to the Czech border with Germany, showed both how infectious Morocco’s success has become for fans, at home and abroad, and how far the team still has to go.

The crowd that braved the cold to watch Morocco’s friendly in April was mostly Czech, including a group of loud, drunk hockey fans who spilled in 30 minutes into the game after leaving a different event nearby. But there were also small pockets of Moroccans – expatriates for the most part, some of whom traveled over 100 miles to attend. They were filled with purpose and belonging, drawn by an urge to express love for the country where they were born, and by the need to share that feeling with others who would understand. Gender mattered little to them.

“It doesn’t matter to me, girls or boys,” said Kamal Jabeur, 59, who came about 190 miles from the city of Brno. “We came here because we wanted the girls not to feel alone.”

Jabeur stood on his seat the whole game, cheering and chanting, “Dima Maghrib” – Always Morocco. His enthusiasm, while welcome, only did so much: Morocco lost to a Czech team that did not qualify for the World Cup. A few days later, it did the same against Romania, another non-qualifier, by 1-0 in Bucharest. Rougher nights could lie ahead.

On Monday, Morocco will open their first World Cup with their toughest test yet: a meeting with Germany, one of the tournament favourites, in Melbourne. The players know their countrymen, and their families, wherever they are, will be watching.

El Chadio, the central defender, said her grandfather made a habit of watching all her games from a favorite cafe back in Morocco, where he likes to brag to his friends and neighbors about his granddaughter.

El Chadio knows the joy that games like the ones she’ll be playing this month can bring. She injured her foot jumping for joy while watching one of Morocco’s victories in the men’s World Cup on television. This month, it’s her team’s turn. She hopes to inspire similar feelings, though not similar injuries, no matter the outcome.

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