Africa’s run at the Women’s World Cup has been nothing short of extraordinary at the end of the group phase on Thursday as debutants Morocco joined Nigeria and South Africa in the last 16.
Morocco had been thrashed 6-0 by twice champions Germany in their opening match of the finals but bounced back to beat South Korea and Colombia to secure their passage into the knockout stage of the tournament.
Their surprise run of results led to the group stage elimination of the highly fancied Germans in one of the biggest shocks of the tournament.
The upset came some 24 hours after South Africa had snatched a dramatic stoppage time winner to oust Italy, and also after Nigeria had advanced from Group B following two draws and a win over co-hosts Australia.
Even Zambia, who had been eliminated after two successive five-goal thrashings, were able to depart with a win, overcoming Costa Rica in their last group game.
Africa’s chances of getting a team through to the knockout phase were always going to be better with the expansion of the finals’ field to 32 teams and the continent’s representation increased to four.
But even then, there was little expectation for the quartet of African teams as they travelled to Australia and New Zealand.
Nigeria have not missed out of any of the nine Women’s World Cups but their dominance in Africa had been ended as they struggled at last year’s Africa Women’s Cup of Nations and only finished fourth.
South Africa won the continental title but their preparations were dogged by arguments over money as the players went on strike last month.
As for Morocco, the first Arab nation to compete, they looked out of the depth as they produced a horror defensive display and looked every bit the 70 places they were ranked below Germany in a rude World Cup welcome.
But they showed inspiring resolve to come back and win a top two place in Group H, albeit with some assistance as Germany failed to beat South Korea on Thursday.
“You’ve always got to factor in the magic of the World Cup,” their coach Reynald Pedros had predicted before the game.
Morocco shook up the traditional order when finishing fourth in Qatar last December in Africa’s best showing at the men’s World Cup and the women now have a chance to also break new ground.
No African team has ever won a knockout game at a previous Women’s World Cup but there will be high hopes now that the continent’s mazy run can continue, even if the odds are stacked against them.
In the last 16, South Africa face the Netherlands, Morocco will be up against France while Nigeria will take on Euro 2022 champions England.
“They’ve shown that nothing can stop them if they put their mind to it and they play for each other,” South Africa coach Desire Ellis said of her players ahead of Sunday’s tie in Sydney against the in-form Netherlands.
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