More than 45,000 fans were packed into the Prince Moulay Abdellah Stadium to witness one of African football’s most thrilling nights as Morocco beat Nigeria on penalties.
The crowd saw two red cards and some sensational defending from the Super Falcons before Rosella Ayane sent the Atlas Lionesses to their first ever Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (WAFCON) final.
VAR controversy takes centre stage
The semi-final, played in front of the largest recorded attendance ever in the history of women’s football in Africa, pitted the nine-time champions of Africa against a side playing in their first WAFCON in 22 years. The two sides previously met twice at a WAFCON—in 1998 and 2000, where Nigeria beat the North Africans 8-0 and 6-0.
It is a testament to Morocco’s progress in the last few years that they came into the match as only narrow underdogs. The game unraveled at a frantic pace, particularly in the first half. But VAR and stamping players dominated the second half.
Early in the second half, Halimatu Ayinde was shown a red card following a VAR review for an accidental stamp on Rosella Ayane. Just minutes later, the ten women of Nigeria took the lead before being pegged back to 1-1.
At 1-1, the Nigerians again were cursing the VAR. Rasheedat Ajibade saw red for another accidental stamp on a Moroccan, reducing the Super Falcons to just nine players.
Both decisions were correct, but the Nigerian side still felt aggrieved with the officiating. In between their sending offs, Morocco had a scare themselves.
Fatima Tagnaout put in a very similar challenge with her studs but only got a yellow card. The foul was certainly not as bad as Ayinde’s, but Tagnaout was extremely lucky to not receive her marching orders.
Sensational Nigeria set up penalty heartbreak
Nigeria played the final 20 minutes with nine players, holding out for the draw. They defended bravely and, considering their player deficit, were brilliant in holding on by giving everything they had and more.
The Moroccans had plenty of chances and should have scored. But the Super Falcons took the game to extra time and eventually penalties. The champions nearly won it late on in extra time. Substitute Gift Monday, playing as a one-woman attack, beat two Moroccans before seeing her spectacular drive from distance crash off the bar.
But it was the cruellest of defeats for the Nigerians. Striker Ifeoma Onumonu missed the only penalty as her side crashed out of the competition for the first time in ten years.
The result was incredibly harsh on the Super Falcons. The West Africans have disappointed with their performances for much of this tournament. But on Monday night, they played one of their greatest ever games in one of the most hostile environments potentially seen in women’s football.
Flares, deafening noise, and—of course—dozens of lasers in players’ eyes at every moment of the match is something rarely seen in women’s football. The atmosphere is a testament to how seriously the Moroccan team and nation took the game.
Atlas Lionesses set up date with Banyana Banyana
Morocco experienced the most incredible night in their history, but Reynald Pedros will have to pick up his players if they want to take home the continental crown.
In their path is a South African side attending their fifth final, a record for a team that has not won the competition. Having lost on penalties in 2018, Banyana Banyana will be desperate to get their hands on the trophy and present a different challenge for the hosts.
The two sides are indisputably the best-coached sides on the continent. Morocco have Pedros, a two-time UEFA Champions League winner with Lyon, who brings a pedigree of coaching not common in African women’s football.
His opponent comes from the opposite end of the spectrum. Desiree Ellis has been forged in fire. Coming from a poor background, she grew up playing football in apartheid South Africa and had to fight for everything she has. The former Banyana Banyana captain has shown over the last six years that she is by far and away Africa’s best footballing mind in the women’s game.
The final is sure to be a fantastic game. But if it comes anywhere near the spectacle that we saw on Monday, it will be one of the greatest finals.