Morocco Women's World Cup football player Ghizlane Chebbak and her father, Larbi
Ghizlane Chebbak (second from right) reached the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations final with Morocco in 2022 – 46 years after her father, Larbi (right), won the men’s competition

“The first thing I learned from my dad was the love of football, and the first gift I got from him was a ball,” remembers Ghizlane Chebbak.

During his distinguished playing days, Larbi Chebbak was a key part of Morocco’s only Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) triumph – but the midfielder in the 1976 final could have only dreamed of the bond football would help him form with his daughter, let alone the profoundly influential career it would inspire.

“I kicked everything I could find,” says Chebbak, Morocco’s captain at the Women’s World Cup, talking to BBC Sport Africa.

“Dad noticed that I loved to play football, so he decided to bring me a ball. I kept the ball with me all the time – to the point that I slept with it.

“He started playing with me and teaching me how to hit a ball, give a pass or juggle.”

More than 20 years on from those formative skill-building sessions, Chebbak is a set-piece magician who was named the tournament’s best player as Morocco reached the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (Wafcon) final on home soil in 2022, losing 2-1 to South Africa.

Her individual brilliance on the pitch is matched by a far wider impact. BBC Sport Africa takes a look at how the 32-year-old has become an icon and helped to break down barriers along the way.

Ghizlane Chebbak was named Player of the Tournament at last year’s Women’s Africa Cup of Nations

‘A story of eternal love’

When Chebbak began her 18-year international career by joining Morocco’s Under-17 team as a 14-year-old, the facilities available to players and perceptions of women’s football in her homeland made that Wafcon final in front of 51,000 fans a fancifully distant proposition.

From an early stage, she called for investment and a broader infrastructure to give women greater opportunities to play.

Dounia Tarkane was one of Chebbak’s first international team-mates. “We took great pride in wearing the shirt of the national team,” she recalls, looking back on those early days.

“‘Ghizo’ has a lot of qualities. Beyond motivating new players, she is a good person – always there to help, sharing information and giving support.

Dounia Tarkane and Ghizlane Chebbak on international football duty with Morocco
Dounia Tarkane (left) joined Chebbak (right) in playing an important role in the growth of women’s football in Morocco during their time together as internationals

“Her patience and discipline on the pitch and her passion for football off it pushed parents to believe that women’s football in Morocco is not just a sport, but a story of eternal love.”

Chebbak’s mother did “everything” to help her play, while her father also foresaw a successful future.

“During the hard times, when I stopped playing, he motivated me to continue and love football more,” she says, her resilience tested at an early stage when political instability curtailed a brief spell with Egyptian club Makkasa in 2011.

The ‘dynamo’ role model

In 2009, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI opened a new football academy outside the city of Sale with the aim of transforming the country’s men’s and women’s teams at all age groups.

Four years later, Chebbak won the first of her 19 domestic trophies with club side AS FAR, the reigning African champions. She has long been a figurehead for the women’s game, top-scoring in the top flight four times and winning Moroccan player of the year five times.

Morocco fans cheer on their women's side during a 2-1 defeat by South Africa in the 2022 Wafcon final
Chebbak was named player of the match despite Morocco’s 2-1 defeat to South Africa in the 2022 Wafcon final in front of a packed house in Rabat

“Especially in a Muslim country, football is made just for men – but after all Ghizo achieved, people started to believe it is a sport women can be part of,” says Tarkane.

In 2019, King Mohammed unveiled a $65 million training complex near the city of Rabat. A year later, the Royal Moroccan Football Federation announced that the National Women’s League would become professional, as well as plans for a national under-17 championship and regional youth competitions for girls.

“We are happy to be part of this generation to develop football,” says Chebbak. “With this joy, the responsibility also becomes greater.”

Larbi Chebbak
Larbi Chebbak played all 90 minutes of the final game of the 1976 Africa Cup of Nations, where a 1-1 draw against Guinea saw Morocco win a competition decided by a group table

On her journey, Chebbak felt the presence of her father, who died in 2020, with her at every step.

“I didn’t consider him like a father, but a friend,” she reveals. “We shared many things together. We talked about everything and I took almost everything from him. He was my best friend.”

Moroccan football expert Jalal Bounouar says his compatriots liken Chebbak’s style to Hakim Ziyech, the Chelsea forward who is the key playmaker in the men’s senior side, and see her as a “second coach” alongside head coach Reynald Pedros.

“She is a true leader and captain,” he explains. “She is the dynamo.

“She plays an important role in bridging the gap between the league-based players who are called up to the national team and those who play in Europe.”

Sisters on verge of history

Morocco’s aims on their finals debut go beyond results on the pitch.

“Of course it was not easy to qualify for the World Cup, especially since in Morocco the widespread opinion was that football is just a male sport,” says Chebbak. “We managed to change that vision.”

The Atlas Lionesses, who face the world’s second-best team, Germany, in Group H, are also the first Arab nation to appear at the tournament.

“We hope to see many Arab teams in the World Cup. They can achieve this too if they work hard.

Morocco forward Ghizlane Chebbak with a football before the 2023 Women's World Cup
Chebbak and Morocco face Germany, Colombia and South Korea in Group H at the World Cup

“We’ve got off to a good start and left a legacy for girls to make a great effort to achieve what we’ve achieved and love football.”

Tarkane elaborates on Chebbak’s power as a catalyst. “With everything Ghizo has achieved with AS FAR and the national team, everyone – and when I say everyone, I mean every person in the country – begins to believe in us,” she says.

“Let’s not forget that Ghizo had that push from her dad. May his soul rest in peace.”

“I think my dad is happy with what I’ve realised today,” concludes Chebbak, adding that seeing “girls wearing Chebbak shirts” is the thing that brings her happiness.

“Every time our last name is mentioned my dad is mentioned too. He’s always there and he’s never going to disappear from my life.”