RABAT, Morocco — On a foggy February morning in Rabat, more than 150 Moroccan players, both men and women, packed on to a small lot of a soccer field. From afar, it looked as if they were playing off the edge of an invisible cliff, with nothing but the Atlantic Ocean looming majestically behind them. The teal waves crashed roughly against the rocky terrain, though soundlessly, as the noise of whistles and yelling on the field drowned them out.

Yallah, Yallah! Allez, Allez!

The women running drills slapped each other’s hands and smiled sheepishly each time they faced off, wide receiver and cornerback, some wearing hijabs, others letting their dark curls fly loose, before sprinting off to try to catch or intercept the ball. They were honing their skills, but they were also performing under the watchful eye of Star Wright, who came from Philadelphia to see them play.

“Don’t look at me as a woman football player,” she told the group of players as they huddled in a large circle, arms resting around one another’s shoulders. “Just look at me as a football player.”

It was the first time various teams of Rabat, Morocco’s capital city, practiced together, and it reinforced why many of them play the game — not just for the action and discipline, but the camaraderie as well.

“Who would have thought that Morocco would be such a big lover of American football? I never knew,” Wright told them at the end of the camp.

“I don’t speak y’all language,” she continued. “Some of y’all don’t even speak my language. But I can tell you one thing that we have in common, and one language that we do speak. And that’s American football.”

Qiana “Star” Wright, 37, a North Philly native, is owner of the Philadelphia Phantomz, a full-contact women’s tackle football team.

Earlier in the year, she formed her Star Wright Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, to travel across Africa to promote American football, especially for women. She raised money for shoulder pads and equipment so that the Moroccan women who want to participate in tackle football have the means to do so. She organized the first football tournament for the women there, which was slated for March 23, before COVID-19 put the country on lockdown and canceled her own season in Philly.

The canceled season didn’t just cut deep into both Wright’s pockets and that of her players, with most expenses for the season paid up front and no income from games to make up for the losses. It also threw a wrench in her momentum in Morocco, where, in February, she spent time with the passionate group of women who play football, teaching them about the sport while in return learning about their culture. She plans to return as soon as it is safe to travel.

“Going there and seeing how much they love American football, I feel like I’d be turning my back on them if I didn’t help,” Wright said.

When asked why she has taken on this unofficial role of spreading the sport, against the odds, Wright has no explanation other than a deep-rooted love for the game, coupled with the energy for ways to make it more inclusive and to help others.

“Just letting girls that always thought about football but never really took that step to play it, know that there is a place for you, there are girls and women that play football all around the world, ‘cause people don't know,” Wright said. “There's space for girls coming up to get to love football, and enjoy the game, and be able to play it at a higher level, eventually.”

Wright became involved in football after channeling what she called her crazy-mom-on-the sidelines energy at her son’s football games to join the now disbanded Philadelphia Firebirds before forming and owning the Phantomz.

Coincidentally, Troy Gore, who was the offensive coordinator at Northeast High School when Wright’s son played there, is also her head coach with the Phantomz. Wright has also played on the U.S. National Team in the Women’s World Championship.

When she suits up to play, she remembers all the times she was told she couldn’t.

“I know when I turn 50, I'm probably going to need knee replacements,” Wright said. “I know that I'm probably going to be really achy and I don't care. I love the sport so much that I'm prepared to deal with whatever comes with it, and that's injuries included.”

Inside the world of women’s football

The large turf field of Marcus Foster Memorial Stadium and its surrounding North Philly neighborhood come alive in the warm spring evenings. Kids run the track, chasing each other and their shadows against the setting sun and the gray bleachers lined above. The sound of racing CV’s on Hunting Park Avenue behind the steel blockade is only slightly muffled against whistles blowing and indistinct yelling on the field.

"I love the sport so much that I’m prepared to deal with whatever comes with it, and that’s injuries included.”

Star Wright

The Philadelphia Phantomz practiced there every Thursday last season, though unofficially. They often had to climb over the locked gate or crawl underneath it to access the field, since it required payment. They’d practice until a paying team forced them to relocate to the patchy and overgrown lot of grass off to the side by Staub Street, where they would attract the attention of curious neighbors who walked by, pausing to watch for a few minutes. They never knew a full-contact women’s tackle football team played right in their backyards.

“Well the first response is like, ‘You play football? Real football?’ ” Wright said about frequent encounters. “And I’m like, ‘No, fake football. Yeah, bro. Real football.’ ”

“Oh, like, flag?”

“No, like tackle.”

“Oh, like, you wear the lingerie?"

“No, no, no, no. We wear full pads.”

The conversation has become routine for these players. But they don’t concern themselves too much with it. Real football talk is in their everyday vernacular.

In Harrisburg, when a Phantomz player dropped a $20 bill at a rest stop on a trip to Columbus, Ohio, for a game, the team yelled “fumble” and all ran to recover it, laughing afterward. On that same trip, players passed copies of pass routes back to each other on the coach bus and slept until they finally pulled up to Grove City Christian School, where they’d be playing the Columbus Comets.

It was a game the Phantomz went on to lose badly. During one timeout late in the game, players snapped at each other while they squeezed side by side on the small bench fit for high schoolers. Their fight strayed from football and instead to whose personal life outside football was more demanding.

“We all got [expletive] in jobs, don’t play football then,” Wright snapped at a teammate.

Their frustrations eventually subsided, and the team went out for food and drinks before returning to Philly at 6 a.m. the following day, ice packs sitting on bruised knees while they lay sprawled across the coach bus, discussing their next opponent.

The lack of structure and pay will always sting. It’s the reason players with full-time jobs and families can’t always make it to practice, and technically can’t be held accountable for it. And if players get seriously injured, which they often do (“Every game ends with a trip to the hospital,” Wright once said wearily), it’s their own insurance that covers the cost.

“It’s a risk that we take, women's football, and it's a bad one,” Wright said. “It's a horrible one. I wish that we were compensated for what we do.”

A season cut short by COVID-19

The Phantomz played last season in the Women’s Football Alliance, which is the largest league for women’s football with almost 60 teams nationwide. This year, the Phantomz joined the newer Women’s National Football Conference, which announced a historic sponsorship with Adidas and consists of 20 teams. The WNFC does not require a fee for entry into the league. The league follows NCAA rules, which is 11-on-11.

“I think that everyone knows that we need unity in order to build and in order to make women's football noticeable,” Wright said. “If everybody put their pride and egos to the side and became one unified league, based on talent and not numbers, then we would definitely have a product.”

In mid-March, a group of around 20 Phantomz players stood in a circle, close enough that they could break down, but distant enough so they would not touch, inside the weight room at Northeast High School.

The women raised their fists in the air, careful not to make contact, while their coach stood in the middle to count down.

“All right here we go, here we go. Phantomz on three, family on six!”

“Yeah, that’s how you break down in the corona era,” Troy Gore spoke into his phone as he recorded their final gathering.

It came as little surprise to the Phantomz that their season would be canceled. Just the night before, the NBA had announced it had suspended the season after two players tested positive for the coronavirus. Soon after, all major sports followed suit.

But unlike players in the NBA or MLB, the Phantomz are not spending their time in quarantine working out, as most of them have full-time jobs and families to take care of. For these players, football was a distraction, and something to work hard for. Now, they no longer even have that.

“Football was the positive thing going on in my life,” said Monique Wilson, 29, an LPN at Briarleaf Nursing Home in Doylestown. Instead of focusing on her rookie season and recovering from a torn ACL, she found herself on the front lines of the pandemic.

Philadelphia Phantomz player Monique Wilson looks down while standing on the sideline during a game against the New York Wolves at Union City High School in Union City, N.J.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
Philadelphia Phantomz player Monique Wilson looks down while standing on the sideline during a game against the New York Wolves at Union City High School in Union City, N.J.

“I have a daughter, so I became a teacher overnight on top of being extremely careful and going to work,” she said.

“I basically went from a helmet to an N95 [mask].”

COVID-19 has put the sports world on halt, but the uncertainty leaves female athletes across all sports to wonder if they’ll get even a fragment of the already small pay or television time than they did before the virus hit, with the men’s seasons threatening to overrun their own.

Being a North Philly native who grew up in a town obsessed with professional sports but with no WNBA or NWSL team, Wright knows her team is up against an added barrier of not only being women, but playing a sport deemed exclusive to men.

“We’re all we have, and being as though Philly loves football so much, I don't see why we can't be put on the same platform in the city of Philadelphia as the other teams,” Wright said. “I mean, we work just as hard, if not harder, with no pay. So, I think the least that the city of Philadelphia can do is respect us and support us for our passion.”

A world away ... or not

Nearly two weeks after the Kansas City Chiefs defeated the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV, Fouzia Madhouni, along with her boyfriend and a few teammates, spent their Friday night watching game highlights in an Airbnb rental, ignoring the hoots of laughter and noise from the boardwalk below them. In the room next door fast asleep was Star Wright, exhausted from all of the travel.

Madhouni, 25, invited Wright to Morocco after they connected on social media. Like Wright and her teammates in Philadelphia, Madhouni said they see football as an escape and a means to express themselves.

“Here in Morocco, we have to convince them to let us play,” Madhouni told Wright while Wright took notes on her laptop for the upcoming weekend as they rode the high-speed Al-Boraq train from Rabat to the coastal city of Tangier for a visit to a school to talk about American football.

By “them” she meant everyone from the people whom she pays to rent out the soccer field, to those who scoff at their efforts to play football. While they’ve received support and encouragement from close friends and family, there have also been similar counts of dismissal, with people telling them to “get a job or a husband instead.”

Like the women in the U.S., Moroccan players must come up with the funds themselves — the American equivalent of $115 per month — to play.

American football in Morocco started in 2012, initiated by a man named Tarik Mouh. Games were played casually on the beach, and players relied on YouTube to learn the sport. Word of mouth and social media led to teams being formed, and eventually a community was built.

Omar Khadaoui, 22, was done surfing back in 2012 when he happened to see people on the beach playing the sport he watched online. He has played ever since, and has relatives who live in Allentown, Pa., send him Eagles merchandise every so often.

Meanwhile, Dalal Balhagge, 21, began playing only a few months ago. Her favorite part of the game is analyzing players’ speed and routes while they break free from defenders.

“I love details, so I found my place [as] a quarterback and in American football,” she said.

Samah Maanaoui, 23, a teammate of Madhouni’s, said she plays “to do something for the new generation, even if it’s something small.”

These players’ love for American football is surprising to Americans.

“We are just normal women,” Madhouni said, shrugging off the idea that people assume Morocco is too conservative a society for women to play football. “Yeah, we’re in Africa, in the Middle East, but we are not running around in jilbabs or something. We have more struggles, but we are going to be better.”

They aren’t the only ones playing in the Middle East and North Africa. The Cairo SheWolves, who were founded in 2016, went on to play the very first women’s American football game in Africa that same year.

American football is still not a popular mainstream sport in the Middle East, and that’s the real struggle for them, according to Madhouni.

Otherwise, she sees it as not so different from what female players in the U.S. face. And she has no intention of letting the coronavirus derail her efforts to start a real league of American football in Morocco. Not now, after she and her teammates brought the sport this far, when it was once nothing more than ashes.

“We brought it to life,” she said.

Once the league is established, she hopes to join Star Wright one day in Philadelphia and play for the Phantomz. Madhouni credits Wright as being one of the few people who gave Moroccan women a real chance to play the game.

“We never gave up on our dream.”