ADELAIDE, Australia — Stepping onto the field against South Korea in Morocco’s second Women’s World Cup match, defender Nouhaila Benzina made history as the first player to wear a hijab while competing at a senior-level global tournament.
A FIFA ban on playing in religious head coverings in its sanctioned games for “health and safety reasons” was overturned in 2014 after advocacy from activists, athletes and government and soccer officials.
“I have no doubt that more and more women and Muslim girls will look at Benzina and just really be inspired — not just the players, but I think decision makers, coaches, other sports as well,” said Assmaah Helal, a co-founder of the Muslim Women in Sports Network.
Benzina plays professional club soccer for the Association’s Sports of Forces Armed Royal — the eight-time defending champion in Morocco’s top women’s league. She did not play in Morocco’s opening 6-0 loss to Germany in Melbourne and had to wait six days to finally get her start in the Group H game in Adelaide.
Morocco is the first Arab or North African nation to qualify for the Women’s World Cup.
The Atlas Lionesses were ranked No. 72 in the world ahead of the tournament and were overwhelmed by two-time champion Germany, which is ranked second. But the Morocco team played with more freedom in an afternoon game against South Korea, and scored the opening goal.
“We are honored to be the first Arab country to take part in the Women’s World Cup,” Morocco captain Ghizlane Chebbak told reporters before tournament, “and we feel that we have to shoulder a big responsibility to give a good image, to show the achievements the Moroccan team has made.”