Women’s AFCON Final Preview: Morocco vs. South Africa
Today, Morocco will face South Africa in the 2022 Women's AFCON final. These finalists, both underdogs in their own regard, will be trying for the title for the first time in both of their team's histories. This will be the first time since 2012 that the title will not be awarded to Nigeria, and it will also be the first time in the tournament's history that the winner will be neither Nigeria or Equatorial Guinea.
Morocco, the hosts of this year's tournament, became first-time finalists after defeating African superpower and 3-time defending WAFCON champions Nigeria in the semi-finals. The tightly-contested, highly controversial match was disputed in front of an African women's football record home crowd of 45,562 fans. Two Nigeria red cards, including one against their star player Rasheedat Ajibade, greatly hurt the Nigerians as they fell in the resulting penalty shootout.
Morocco's massive result against Nigeria was just another chapter in their fairytale run at this year's WAFCON. By beating Botswana in the quarterfinals, Morocco qualified to their first Women's World Cup in front of a home crowd
Previously, Morocco’s best result in WAFCON was third place in the group stage of the 1998 tournament. Otherwise, the team had only qualified for one other WAFCON group stage, which they did in 2000 and finished fourth out of four teams. Since 2000, Morocco has not qualified for any WAFCON tournament besides the 2022 edition, often falling in the preliminary round with narrow 1 or 2-goal losses.
Things began to change in the year 2020, when the Federation employed former European treble-winning Olympique Lyonnais manager Reynald Pedros. Pedros has been instrumental in Morocco's rapid rise to the top of Africa. Since he took charge, Morocco's squad has gotten much younger, with the current team featuring many of Morocco's players from their successful 2019 UNAF U-20 Women's Tournament. Their entire tactical setup has also changed, as well as the frequency that the team plays friendlies against high-level teams. He was also one of the first Morocco managers who sought out European players of Moroccan descent- such as Levante Las Planas midfielder Yasmin Mrabet and Tottenham Hotspur forward Rosella Ayane- to represent the country.
Another key player in Morocco's success has been former United States international footballer Kelly Lindsey, who has acted as the sporting director of Moroccan women's football since 2020. Since the start of her tenure, Lindsey has worked with Morocco's federation to create a four-year plan that would begin paying coach and player wages within Morocco's women's clubs. She has also organized multiple women's youth tournaments across the country to ensure that Morocco continue to produce youth talent, all with the ultimate goal of professionalizing the sport in the country.
In addition to their successes on the national level, Morocco's squad is well represented by the most successful club of the Moroccan Women's Championship, ASFAR. Well over half of Morocco's squad plays for ASFAR, including captain Ghizlane Chebbak and star player Fatima Tagnaout. Last year, ASFAR reached the semifinal of the first ever edition of the CAF Women's Champions League.
On the opposite direction of the African continent, South Africa have had an equally dominant run to the final. They finished atop the "group of death" that featured Nigeria, Botswana, and Burundi, sweeping the group with 3 straight wins. In the knockouts, they had two very narrow wins in the quarterfinal against Tunisia and the semifinal against Zambia. In the latter match, South Africa were rescued by a penalty at the very last minute of the match, which was converted by Linda Motlhalo.
Given their decades of dominance in Africa, South Africa's underdog label comes from a very different place- the Banyana Banyana have reached the final five different times, but have won zero of those finals. In three of those finals (including the most recent 2018 final) they were defeated by Nigeria, who they beat 2-1 in the group stages. This matchup against Morocco will likely be one of their best chances to win it all without the mental block of playing the formidable Super Falcons.
The African giants are coached by perhaps their biggest legend Desiree Ellis, a three-time CAF African coach of the Year winner. Ellis, as both a player and a coach, has led South Africa to a combined three finals appearances. South Africa are also defined by veteran Linda Motlhalo, young star Noxolo Cesane, and keeper Adile Dlamini. Dlamini, the best goalkeeper at the 2021 CAF Women's Champions League and CAF Player of the Year nominee, has let in just two goals through the duration of the tournament.
The South Africans will be at a major disadvantage today, as they will be entering the final without the services of one of their stars, Thembi Kgatlana. Kgatlana, who suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon against Botswana, has since been replaced by Mamelodi Sundowns forward Melinda Kgadiete.
Morocco and South Africa have never faced each other in a major international competition before today's final. Morocco, who has only ever competed in two WAFCON group stages before 2022, has never had South Africa as one of their opponents. The two teams have also not played each other in any recent friendlies or qualifying matches.
Morocco have played a 4-3-3 formation throughout the duration of this tournament, relying heavily on crosses from their two dynamic wingers. The XI will likely be very similar to the one that defeated Nigeria in the semifinal.
DF: Aït El Haj, Mrabet, El Chad, Redouani
MF: Hassani, Chebbak ©, Nakkach
FW: Mssoudy, Ayane, Tagnaout
South Africa (4-4-2):
South Africa have been using a 4-4-2 in each of their knockout matches. Perhaps the biggest area of debate is the choices Desiree Ellis will make between the experience of their veterans and the speed and of their youth. Given how dynamic and quick Morocco's forwards can be, she will likely choose to prioritize South Africa's younger players.
DF: Gamede, Mbane, Matlou, Dhalmini
MF: Cesane, Jane ©, Motlhalo, Kgoale
FW: Seoposenwe, Kgadiete
Players to watch:
Morocco: Fatima Tagnaout
Morocco's player to watch will be their standout performer throughout the competition, Fatima Tagnaout. The 23-year-old has shown her immense talent while in 1v1 situations, highlighting her dribbling ability and her pinpoint crosses. Tagnaout's matchup against South Africa's left back Bonkega Gamede will be one of the more important matchups in the game.
Tagnaout, in conjunction with midfielder Gizlane Chebbak and forward Sanaâ Mssoudy, are the players most likely to combine for a goal in this final. She had two assists in the quarterfinal match against Botswana, and will be hoping to get her name on the scoresheet once again in today's final.
South Africa: Jermaine Seoposenwe
South Africa stand out more as a team than as individuals, but their young forward Jermaine Seoposenwe has stepped up big time in the absence of Thembi Kgatlana. The forward rescued South Africa in the quarterfinals by scoring the match-winning goal against Tunisia, which qualified them for the 2023 Women's World Cup. With her goal, she became the first South African since Veronica Phewa to score in 3 different WAFCON tournaments, a statement to her longevity.
Both teams have plenty to play for in today's final. Morocco, an underdog story for the ages, will hope to stun Africa by defeating the continent's two biggest superpowers on the way to their first ever WAFCON title. South Africa, with a good mix of veteran experience and youth, will hope to finally reach the the title that has been evading them since the inception of WAFCON. If there is any time for either team to make history, it is now.