In Morocco, American football isn’t a men-only affair

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A member of "The Pirates" American football team takes part in a training session in the Moroccan capital Rabat on July 29, 2018. (AFP)
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Members of "The Pirates" American football team take part in a training session in the Moroccan capital Rabat on July 29, 2018. (AFP)
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Coach Ichtar Zahraoui (R) trains a member of "The Pirates" American football team in the Moroccan capital Rabat on July 29, 2018. Focused and sweaty, 30 young men and women gather every Sunday to practise American football together as part of "The Pirates" team, an unusual scene in a country obsessed with soccer, the variety of football far more commonly played across the globe. / AFP / FADEL SENNA
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Members of "The Pirates" American football team take part in a training session in the Moroccan capital Rabat on July 29, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 26 August 2018
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In Morocco, American football isn’t a men-only affair

  • Focused and sweaty, 30 players gather every Sunday to practice the sport
  • An unusual scene in a country obsessed with soccer, the variety of football far more commonly played across the globe

RABAT: 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 country obsessed with soccer, the variety of football far more commonly played across the globe.
“It’s not easy to make young Moroccans love American football,” 39-year-old Zahraoui says.
“It’s an aggressive sport that requires a lot of energy, work and equipment,” says Zahraoui, who founded “The Pirates” men’s and women’s teams in 2017.
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’s not available, the beach.
At practice the “Pirates Boys” and “Pirates Girls” zigzag between cones and plow into tackling dummies, training pads and sometimes each other.
Without hesitation, the players — mostly students aged under 30, 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 says.
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 says, referring to the National Football League in the United States with which she has had “interesting contacts.”
American football made its debut in Morocco in 2012 with the creation of amateur teams in cities like 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.
But Zahraoui says she has not once encountered a “problem of a sexist nature” since launching the project.
Female Moroccan athletes are nothing new, she says — they “have distinguished themselves in sports since the 1980s.”
“What we need are teams, a federation, coaches, referees, trainers and a championship,” she insists.
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 may not have joined.
“I came to watch a friend train, but the coach convinced me to come and try,” says Ghita Ouassil.
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 to be less tense.”


Ahmed Barman out to toast Al-Ain success in FIFA Club World Cup

Updated 11 December 2018
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Ahmed Barman out to toast Al-Ain success in FIFA Club World Cup

  • Tournament gets under way on Wednesday when Al-Ain take on Team Wellington at home.
  • UAE midfielder sure his side can cause a few shocks.

LONDON: While he is only too aware of the quality opposition they have to face, Al-Ain midfielder Ahmed Barman is backing “The Boss” to scare a few teams in the FIFA Club World Cup.
The tournament gets under way when the UAE outfit face Team Wellington on their home ground in the opener today. Last year saw fellow Arabian Gulf League side Al-Jazira reach the semifinal where they gave Real Madrid a huge fright before narrowly losing 2-1. And inspired by that march to the last four, Barman is looking for Al-Ain to go one better and become the first Emirati side to make the final.
“The FIFA Club World Cup is a global competition coveted by every club,” Barman said. “Al-Ahli, Al-Jazira and Al-Wahda participated in this tournament before and did their part, putting the UAE on the world map. We at Al-Ain hope to reach the semi-final, as Al-Jazira did, or do even better.”
Before any tournament it is only natural to dream of glory and lifting the trophy in front of adoring fans. But the midfielder is not getting too cocky, revealing that despite having home advantage Al-Ain are taking absolutely nothing for granted, starting with Wednesday’s clash against the Kiwis.
“There’s no doubt that we’re aiming to reach the final and face a giant like Real Madrid, but first we have to focus on our opening match against Team Wellington,” the 24-year-old said.
“We need to win to progress from this round and play the subsequent games until we reach the final against Real Madrid and show a standard of play the UAE can be proud of.”
Barman is not anticipating an easy opener.
“Team Wellington are a very good team with considerable ability. They won their local league and the OFC Champions League, which proves they’re powerful.
“So, all our focus is on this opening match. We’re annualizing our opponents to understand their capabilities as we prepare to perform well on the pitch and get positive result.”
The UAE champions did not have the best preparation for their stab at Club World Cup glory, losing 5-2 to Al-Wasl in the UAE President’s Cup at the weekend.
That result, while clearly not ideal, has not bothered the side’s coach.
“We cannot win every game, what is gone is gone, it’s full concentration on the match ahead,” Zoran Mamic said.
“There are no rules that Al-Ain cannot lose games, that’s why I don’t make any drama.”
But while Barman was keen to invoke the memory of Al-Jazira’s march to the last four, his boss was less so, telling his team to focus on the match at hand before getting ahead of themselves.
“We are not here to talk about last year, just as we are not here to talk about the future,” the Croatian said. “We are here to represent the club in the best possible way. We focus on the match at hand and everything will take care of itself.”
Of today’s opponents he added: “We have watched all their games, we know their strengths and where they are not so strong. They are particularly good offensively, they play with fast wingers and a striker who is a good scorer, they play a system that is unusual to us because no teams in the Emirates play with three in the last line. If we do our job we will (have) a good match.”