Leaving Chelsea was the best thing Morocco’s Rosella Ayane did for her career

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When Morocco star striker Rosella Ayane was released by Chelsea in 2016, having grown up at the London club, she feared there was nothing left for her in football.

Seven years later, the versatile 27-year-old forward has become an important player for Tottenham Hotspur in the FA WSL, and is primed to play a crucial role for Morocco at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand this month.

After she was released by Chelsea, Ayane was out of the game for a year and subsequently moved to Cyprus with Apollon Limassol. At that time, it would have been difficult to believe that she could ever reach the highest level again.

Ayane, who was born in Reading, England, told ESPN: “I don’t think it was necessarily outside pressures [that caused problems at Chelsea]. I was young and looking back on it, I had a lot to learn and I had to really sit back and reflect on myself and my character – everything that I want in football – and that’s something that I did.

“I think getting released from Chelsea is one of the best things that happened because you had to take a good hard look at yourself.”

After a spell back at Bristol City, where she had previously played on loan, Ayane returned to London with Tottenham in 2019.

She said of wearing the kit of a childhood rival: “I think in women’s football, you get a lot of people going in between clubs, and the rivalry and stuff – it’s getting more frowned upon now – but back in the day, I didn’t feel any weird feelings putting on a Spurs shirt.

“I was just super proud of the journey that I’d been on and to play for Spurs and get my career back on track.”

It would take a further two years before Ayane was ready to commit internationally to Morocco, her father’s country, having previously played for England U17 and U19. She was also eligible to play for Scotland through her mother, but finally chose the north African nation in 2021.

At club level her role has largely become providing assists to Beth England, but her goalscoring prowess is often called upon at international level and she has so far found the net nine times in 19 caps, justifying what was initially a difficult decision to commit despite her affection for Morocco.

Ayane said of the decision to play for Morocco: “I think when you’re making such a big jump, you have to be ready in your career and you have to be ready in your life outside of football. I think a lot of people don’t realise how strenuous it is to be on international duty, especially somewhere that you don’t know anyone.

“To me, it had to feel right predominantly off the pitch, as well as in my career. When I turned [Morocco’s first approach] down, it wasn’t that I didn’t want to do it. It just didn’t feel like it was the right time for me. When it came back around, I was ready mentally and physically and it obviously paid off.”

Ayane can see parallels between her situations with club and country. Neither endeavour worked out at the first attempt, but in both aspects of the game, her persistence has paid off.

“I think everything does come full circle and I think that if you deserve something, my favourite saying is: what’s meant to be won’t pass you by,” Ayane said.

“At the time, it felt like the end of the world being released, but when you actually sit back and look at it, it’s actually one of the best things that happened, and it’s the same with Morocco. If I said ‘yes’ first time around, it might not necessarily have been as good as it is now.”

Morocco made the African Women’s Cup of Nations (WAFCON) final on home soil last year, losing 2-1 to South Africa. Despite that heartbreak, Ayane, who scored in the final, spoke with great pride of her side’s surprising run to the last hurdle.

She said of Morocco’s recent growth: “I think nobody expected us to do as well as we did at AFCON. I think it was our first time to make it to the final stages of the competition and if I’m completely honest, I don’t think anyone expects anything of us at the World Cup.

But I don’t mind that, because being an underdog, you just have everything to prove and absolutely no pressure, so I’m excited to go and see what we can do as Morocco.”

Thembi Kgatlana, whose Banyana Banyana side beat Morocco in the final, paid tribute to the WAFCON hosts in an interview with ESPN. The Racing Louisville forward, who missed the final through injury, tipped Morocco to be African women’s football’s next powerhouse due to their investment in infrastructure and development of the game at all levels.

“That’s nice of her [Kgatlana]. She’s saying kind of what I’m feeling and seeing in Morocco. They’re really putting money, infrastructure and development into the women’s game,” Ayane said upon hearing of Kgatlana’s comments.

“Obviously, I can’t speak for other nations in the continent, but on the back of WAFCON and the funding that they (the Royal Moroccan Football Federation) are putting into it – the respect that we’re shown – I think it will only go one way, because with that investment, how do you expect a nation, especially the women’s side, to get better? So, I think Morocco’s on the right track.”

At the World Cup, Morocco will be in Group H with Germany, Colombia and South Korea. Neither Colombia nor South Korea have made it further than the round of 16 before, while Germany are past their golden era, so debutantes Morocco have every chance of causing an upset.

Ayane said: “Individually, I’m not thinking too much about [personal goals]. I want to get out of the group. I’m not going to be another number. Of course, it’s a pleasure being there, but I’m not there just to take part and I think the team is feeling that as well.

“So one of our main targets will be to get out of the group and prove ourselves, but as I said, I don’t think there’s any pressure on our shoulders.”

In the long-term, she wants to be part of a generation which changes perceptions around women’s football in her country: “I want Morocco to eventually be a country where women’s football is respected the way it is respected in England. I’ve said that from the start.

“I want to help push Moroccan women’s football to get to a place where it’s heavily watched [and] it’s got a lot of investment and a lot of respect. I think England is one of the powerhouses for that and I want to help Morocco get to that stage.”

Morocco will kick off their campaign against Germany in Melbourne on July 24 before facing South Korea in Adelaide six days later and Colombia in Perth on August 3.

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