Born in England to a Scottish mother, Rosella Ayane is Morocco’s reluctant new heroine

Rosella Ayane didn’t realize what she had just realized when she scored the winning penalty in the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations semi-final.

It’s not meant in the sense of “it hasn’t been understood yet, the enormity of the moment hasn’t quite dawned on me”. It wasn’t that Ayane just didn’t have time to process the achievement and what it meant to her and the nation.

She literally didn’t realize that her kick, Morocco’s fifth in the shootout to beat Nigeria and send the hosts to the final for the first time ever, was decisive.

After clinically pushing him away, she clenched her fist in low-key celebration, turned around, and started walking towards the center circle. Then she noticed that the entire Rabat stadium had exploded and her teammates were charging around the pitch. She looked a little confused, turned to her left with her palms as if to say “…What?”

Watching it all unfold, you briefly wondered if this was the ultimate flex, which she simply said, “Of course, winning a penalty in the shootout, probably the most pressured moment of my career, not problem, what’s the problem?” Was she just playing it super, super cool?

“First of all, I’m not that cool”, says Ayane Athleticisma few days after the semi-final.

“What you saw was completely raw. I was so focused on scoring my penalty, I was so closed-minded about that particular moment that I kind of blocked out everything else. I just turned around, saw everyone running towards me and I thought, ‘…Oh my god, we won it’. It was just a crazy moment, really.

Talking to Ayane about the moments leading up to the penalty, it sounds like she was in a sort of trance, a heightened state of consciousness and a level of concentration particular to elite athletes. All superfluous information is blocked, all thoughts directed to the task at hand, absolute tunnel vision.

“As I walked towards the penalty spot there was a lot of noise, but I just tried to block that. When the others were taking their penalties, I thought of nothing but hoping that everything the world would score and that I would score.

“It all happened so fast. I couldn’t think of anything but scoring my penalty. That’s all we can say about it. I was pretty calm, I wasn’t thinking of anything else Just trying to focus on one thing.

The only thing that nearly broke his concentration was a weirdly long conversation with referee Maria Rivet after Ayane made the long walk from the center circle. Rivet had spoken to all the players who came forward but he seemed particularly involved in this matter.

“I can’t tell you the first part of the conversation because it was in French. I tried to be as respectful as possible and let her speak, because I understand a little French, but when she finished, I just thought: “I didn’t understand anything of what you have said.

“So I just said, ‘I’m really sorry, can you repeat that in English? The only part of the conversation that I really took into account was that she told me not to celebrate when I scored, because she had to check that it was a goal. So maybe subconsciously (in terms of reaction) it was in the back of my head without me realizing it.

It bears repeating what a colossal moment it was. The match ended 1-1 after extra time, with Nigeria down to nine players after red cards were shown to Halimatu Ayinde and Rasheedat Ajibade.

To say that Nigeria have historically dominated the tournament would be a blatant understatement. They have won nine of the previous 11 official editions, their worst performance being fourth place. They were the favorites to win a fourth consecutive WAFCON title, even without their star player, Barcelona’s Asisat Oshoala, who suffered a knee injury in the group stage.

Hosts Morocco had never made it past the group stage before. In fact, they hadn’t even qualified for WAFCON since 2000 and won only one match at the tournament in their history. They had also never qualified for the World Cup, but by reaching the semi-finals they took that step, with this WAFCON doubling down on qualifying for the World Tournament in New Zealand and Australia next year. Even to be in the semi-finals was an extraordinary achievement, but to reach the final was something else.

And it all came down to Ayane. The shootout was ready at 4-4 when it escalated with Nigeria having taken all of their own, with centre-forward Ifeoma Onumonu the only one missing, perhaps distracted by the laser pens aimed at him from the crowd .

It is the biggest single kick in the history of Moroccan women’s football. Maybe it was for the best that Ayane didn’t quite realize it was the clincher.

“People chose when they wanted to take one, and I ended up being fifth,” she says. “It wasn’t predetermined and it wasn’t something like ‘I want to be fifth’, it happened like that. I didn’t think: ‘I’m going to take the winning penalty.’ »

So wasn’t this a time when Cristiano Ronaldo insisted on being last in order to claim glory?

“Absolutely not. As you can see from my reaction, I’m not someone who likes all the glory, I just wanted to score for the team.

The shooting must have been particularly poignant for Moroccan coach Reynald Pedros. The Frenchman took and missed a penalty in the shootout that knocked France out of Euro 96, also in the semi-finals. Prior to this tournament he had rolled high, being part of the Nantes side that won Ligue 1 in 1995 and had a transfer offer to Barcelona, ​​which he turned down for family reasons.

Ayane in action at WAFCON (Photo: AFP)

Instead he went to Marseille, where things didn’t work out, and the rest of his career was itinerant, taking a few ill-advised stints in Italy, before exhausting himself in the French lower leagues and Qatar. .

The missed penalty was not the only cause of his decline in play, but it was the highlight on which his career turned. He only earned a handful of further caps and was booed in his next game for France. If anyone knows how much missing a crucial penalty in a major tournament can transform someone’s career, it’s him.

Perhaps wisely, he didn’t tell his team about it this time. “I don’t know about the other girls,” Ayane says, “but we definitely didn’t have that conversation, and he didn’t tell the group about it.” Athleticism belatedly realizes, with a frightening nod to our advancing years and the relentless march of time, that Ayane was three months old during Euro 96.

Ayane was born and raised in England, her mother Scottish and her father Moroccan. She started out at Chelsea, never really broke through there and after a series of loans and a brief stint in Cyprus, moved to Tottenham in 2019.

She played for England at youth level but the Moroccan FA got in touch shortly after signing for Spurs, although at this stage the timing was not right. When the opportunity to represent them surfaced again last year, she jumped at the chance. “As my career progressed, I wanted to play senior international football, and it was the perfect time in my life to do so.”

She made her debut against Mali in June 2021 and scored in the first minute of the game. Since then, she has been an integral part of Pedros’ team and has only been part of a losing team once, in a friendly against Spain.

“My Moroccan roots are very close to my heart and it’s something I’m very proud of,” she says. “It’s such a special feeling to see how proud I make my father’s family: they still live here in Casablanca, they’ve been to every game so far in the tournament.

“I spent a lot of time in Morocco when I was a child. I played soccer in the street with my grandmother’s neighbors and kicked a ball on the beach. You could never take the ball away from me when I was here, I remember buying a Moroccan shirt at the market as a child and then wearing it to school in England.

Morocco will face South Africa in the final in Rabat on Saturday, in front of what should be another full house at the Prince Moulay Abdallah Stadium. To even be at this stage is remarkable, but to become the third different nation to win this tournament would be even more so.

“We are achieving so many firsts for Morocco,” says Ayane. “It was an incredible race. I hope we can add something else to the story list.

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