Just over 7,000 kilometers separate the Caribbean island of Jamaica and the North African nation of Morocco, but back at Tottenham Hotspur’s headquarters in North London, they share much more in common.
Earlier this year, two players headed off to their respective national teams and confederation competitions seeking something which at one point seemed unlikely in either’s respective career — to play at a World Cup.
Both Drew Spence and Rosella Ayane have represented England at various levels, Spence at senior, while Ayane played in almost every age group.
Spence, now 30, was born in London and spent almost 15 years at Chelsea before being reunited with Ayane across the city in the summer. Ayane, 26, came through the ranks at Chelsea but never made it as a regular first-team player, but has enjoyed several good years at Tottenham.
The things in common don’t stop there either. Both have heritage that means they can represent other nations, with Spence going off to earn senior caps for Jamaica in 2021 and Ayane gaining her Morocco debut at the same time, finding the net less than a minute after making her debut against Mali.
The subsequent 18 months has seen both players reach next summer’s World Cup. Spence via an excellent CONCACAF tournament that saw her named in the team of the tournament award, while Ayane’s Morocco reached the Africa Cup of Nations final, with the Spurs forward scoring the decisive penalty in the semifinal shootout, despite infamously not appearing to know she was about to take the winning penalty.
“It [playing for Morocco] was something that came to me maybe three or four years ago,” said Ayane. “It was an opportunity I was looking at taking. I was still around the England youth teams, but at that moment it wasn’t something that felt right in my career and felt right personally.
“The opportunity arose again last year. They’d brought in [Reynald] Pedros, such a good manager with so much experience and it just felt like the right time in my career, and personally it felt like the right time to represent Morocco. I’m so thankful I did because it’s been an amazing time and we’re on a great journey, so good timing, I think.”
While Spence did represent England at senior level, her caps meant she had to wait for a period before representing another nation, but the forward, who joined Tottenham just this year, echoes Ayane’s sentiments about feeling like it was the right time to go and explore her heritage both on and off the pitch.
“The coach reached out to me during lockdown sometime,” she recalled. “He just said, ‘We’d love to have you on board, if this is something you’re interested in,’ and I thought, ‘Yeah, why not?’ It was a new experience, a new challenge for me, to play international level and embrace the other part of my culture, which I was really looking forward to.
“I was just really excited when the coach reached out to me. From there, during COVID-19 there weren’t many camps. I had my first camp last year, so it’s all happened quite quickly.”
Born in Reading to a Scottish mother and Moroccan father, Ayane has a grandmother and auntie who both live in Casablanca, while Spence qualifies for Jamaica through her grandmother on her father’s side of the family, but all her immediate family current lives in England.
Joining new international sides offered an opportunity for both players to not only to play elite level international football but also the chance to explore their own heritages and cultures that played a part in their respective decisions.
While Ayane was going largely into a group of players she’d never met, Spence at least had a handful of Women’s Super League players in the same boat who had chosen to represent Jamaica, including former Chelsea teammate Becky Spencer.
“We have players from England, from the USA, from Jamaica. It was really important for me to feel comfortable and all the girls did that to be fair. It was like walking into another family, going from one family to another.
“It’s important for me to embrace every moment, give everything on and off the pitch, and push the girls to make sure we’re pushing the nation in the best way possible.”
Ayane added: “I visited a lot growing up as a kid, so it wasn’t a completely new experience. I knew the culture, what the country is like, it’s an amazing country and the people are fantastic. It wasn’t a shock going into that environment, but with football it takes a lot of adaption and I’d like to see myself as a character that can adjust to changes, try and help where I can, and it’s just putting my best foot forward each time.
“It’s taken some change and some learning, but it’s a really positive environment to be in, but it was easier having family there. They’ve helped me and I’ve tried to pick up certain things with the language. It’s been hard, but I knew I was putting myself in that environment and as I said, it’s all positive.”
Both are now looking forward to a prospect they’re honest enough to admit at one point in their respective careers looked unlikely.
Jamaica will face the tough test of both France and Brazil in next year’s World Cup, while Morocco has been drawn against Germany in their debut in the competition.
Right now, though, neither are too put off about the level of opposition they’ll face as they look forward to the opportunity of a lifetime, earned both by performances on the pitch and by taking a leap of faith off it.
“It’s just amazing when you actually look at it,” said Ayane. “We’d never even been in the final of an AFCON before, we were just writing history every game in the tournament. It was pretty evident qualifying for the World Cup was one of my major targets and while I’m so happy and so grateful that we did, I think we deserved it, too [Morocco beat Nigeria in the semifinal].
“It’s such an exciting year ahead, to be preparing for our first ever World Cup, the camps are so something to look forward to. We have to keep learning and building, but I’m so happy we qualified. From that moment on, I believed we could go on and win it, unfortunately we didn’t, but to get to our first ever final and it’s an incredible achievement which will forever go down in history in Morocco.”
Expanding on her mixed feelings of making the World Cup but losing the AFCON final to champions South Africa, Ayane adds: “I was gutted at the time. I’m very competitive and I want to win and for maybe a week or so I reflected on it, but when you take a step back and look at what we achieved, it’s incredible to even reach the final.
“There was talk before the tournament about us not even getting out of the group stage, which is crazy to think we’ve then gone on to a close game against South Africa and beating Nigeria. It’s shows where we want to be, what we want to achieve and that we should be taken seriously, especially in Africa.”
Thousands of miles away meanwhile, Spence was taking on the likes of the United States and Mexico, where a win against the latter set up a run to an eventual playoff against Costa Rica that saw Jamaica come out on top in a nervy match and reach the World Cup.
Spence herself thrived, scoring her first international goal against Haiti in the group stage and being named to the team of the tournament in attack alongside Alex Morgan, all of which still hasn’t quite sunk in.
“To be honest, I don’t think so. When we qualified, it was a bit overwhelming. We had the hardest group, we weren’t supposed to qualify, and we proved a lot of people wrong. Maybe when the camps come it will sink in, but at the time it was just full focus and now I have to put my club head on. I’m super excited, it will be one of the best experiences of my life. I can’t wait to go, but there’s a lot of new beginnings for me right now and I’m trying to focus on Tottenham at the minute.
“I’ve lived in Surrey since I was 18, now I live in North London. I’ve changed my whole life, but it’s good for me to challenge myself. You have to push yourself and I think that’s what I’m doing now. I’m excited to see what I can do, you can get a bit too comfortable. I learnt so much at Chelsea and hopefully I can bring those experiences to both Tottenham and Jamaica.”
While Spence had to wait for her chance, she admits she wishes she could have done it earlier, while Ayane had the opportunity to do so, but wanted to wait for the right moment in her life and career.
Ayane’s own tournament included the drama of her taking the winning penalty in the semifinal, but seemingly oblivious she had just rolled home the decisive spot kick in the most nonchalant manner until she turned around and saw her teammates running toward her, plus the roar of a sold-out stadium with Morocco hosting the competition.
“When you watch it back, and it’s funny to watch it back now, but I think I said before I was just so focused, I tried to zone absolutely everything else out. I knew I was taking the fifth penalty, but in the actual moment I was so focused on putting the ball in the back of the net. It’s a funny moment to look back on, maybe going forward I need to zone out, put the ball in the back of the net, and soak up everything else after.”
Unfortunately for Ayane, I’ve been around women’s football long enough to remind her it’s not her only bit of penalty drama in her career so far.
Back in 2015, she became known as “The Encroacher,” as the player who meant now England captain and close friend Leah Williamson had to come back several days later and take a penalty that would qualify the Under-19s at the time for the European Championships.
With Williamson holding her nerve to convert, she swiftly had an “encroacher” t-shirt made for her friend and teammate, and Ayane’s happy to take the credit for Williamson’s rise to stardom.
“I don’t have the t-shirt, but I have the four-page newspaper spread about it still! I will forever say to Leah that led her on the way to where she is now! I’ll never forget the encroacher.”
On a more serious note, Ayane reflects on the spectacle of Morocco not only succeeding in the tournament but also hosting it, with stadiums around the country filled to watch the host nation, despite having little pedigree in the women’s game based on previous tournament performances.
“When you think of the number of fans we had in the stadiums, the support we had from Moroccans, it was honestly incredible. People back home were looking at the Euros, but we were in the same situation, hosting a tournament. If the stadium could have held 100,000, it would still have sold out, it was incredible.
“We had a full stadium, people outside trying to get in without tickets and that in itself shows how invested and supportive Morocco was as a country towards us in that tournament. I just hope it pushes Moroccan women’s football in a direction it deserves to go in.”
Ayane stayed in Casablanca for a few days after the final to catch up with family and admits there was a buzz around the whole country.
“It’s special to have that because it shows we have earned the respect of the Moroccan people and women’s football there is going in the right place. In Europe, everyone was focused on the Euros, but for us we had that same emphasis and situation.
“The media were picking up on what we were doing, the social media support was unreal, it’s such a special feeling to know we’ve achieved what we’ve achieved when you look at where we were before. It’s special and important for Morocco and particularly women in Morocco.”
“It was so nice to have my aunties and my cousins at the games,” Ayane said, “even my Grandma, who is quite elderly, got out to one of the games, but she said she wouldn’t miss it. When you’re representing your country, to have your family in your stands, Morocco is a really special place to me and it’s hard to describe how it feels, especially the tournament being in Morocco too. Us doing so well, it’s such fond memories to look back on and memories I’ll look back on forever.”
Spence didn’t have family in the stands for her games with her family based back in the U.K., but is hopeful some will be able to make the trip to Oceania for next year’s World Cup.
Jamaican football has produced some of its own talented players in the past few years, with Manchester City’s Khadija Shaw the most notable of them, but has tapped into the European market to bring over the likes of Spence, plus players such as Jade Bailey, Shania Hayles, Paige Bailey-Gayle, and more, all from within the English game.
“The coach when he spoke to me said he wants everyone to play regularly, which maybe they didn’t have in the past,” said Spence. “He’s brought in experience, who play regular football every day, every week, that helps the college girls coming through.
“Me, Bex, Jade, for example, can help with that; one day they’ll [young players] have to drive the standards. For now, it’s important we’ve qualified, that was important for me and my career. If I’d retired never doing that, I would have regretted it, so that was a big moment for me. They have more staff in place, making sure everything’s in order, just putting the resources in the right places.
“The more we qualify and make these big tournaments only helps in that aspect. There was a big crowd at home, fans travelled over to Miami when we played there. It’s important to have as many games there as possible to build that fan base and keep getting people involved.”
When discussing the extra resources and support for a developing nation, Ayane offers her own insight into the progress being made in Morocco, who for so long have lived in the shadows of Africa’s more successful women’s football teams, and highlighted the importance of Pedros, who has previously won the Champions League with Lyon in Europe.
“That’s exactly it. The federation itself is supporting us a lot at the moment, you can see the change from a year ago. The support from the federation, from the country, we’ve really put Morocco on the map when it comes to women’s football with our success this summer.
“We haven’t been as developed as nations like Nigeria and Cameroon, but we’re definitely on that path. What we’ve achieved this summer is a step in the right direction and I’m just hoping we can continue to go down that path as a country, as women’s football, as a federation, everything.
“He’s a manager,” she continued about Pedros, “that’s played at such a high level. He’s played for his country at the highest level and translated that into coaching and working with Lyon he won everything there was to win. His experiences around that sort of seep into the team without even realizing. He’s got so much respect from the team and in Morocco and he’s helping us to get to where we want to go and he’s the guy you would want in charge of a developing team.”
At Tottenham, Ayane and Spence aren’t the only ones celebrating. Along with Spencer, Canada’s Shelina Zadorsky also reached the World Cup, ensuring a happy camp back at HQ, particularly for the trio whose careers have intertwined long before they all ended up at their current club.
“We all knew before the summer we had a massive summer for all of us,” admitted Spence. “We’re all pretty close, we’re all so proud of each other. If three of us did and one didn’t, it would have been a bit sour, but we all did, it’s just positive.
“Rosella did amazing in AFCON, Shelina does what she does, Bex with me was a nice moment for all of us to be able to say we all did and we’re all pretty proud. I’ve known Rosella and Bex for years, it’s good to see both of them progress. For all of us it’s the international stage now, we all wanted a new challenge, we’ve all embraced it and we’re all going to a World Cup, we wouldn’t have though that two years ago.”
They are not the only ones either. Leicester City defender Ashleigh Plumptre reached the World Cup with Ayane’s Moroccan rivals Nigeria, while a whole host of other players around the WSL could represent other countries, including Maz Pacheco, who could represent Philippines, another nation that has reached their first World Cup under former Australia head coach Alen Stajcic.
With both players a walking success story for pursuing opportunities with their second nations, both believe more and more will look for opportunities if England isn’t a long-term option.
“You see it a lot in the men’s game and we’re getting that now with the women’s game where people see opportunities,” said Ayane. “It makes everything more competitive and personally, it’s something you might not have if you don’t take it. It’s one of the better decisions I’ve made, I’ve got a silver medal in an AFCON and I’m going to a World Cup, so I’m glad I did it.”
“It’s up to the player,” Spence added. “There’s a lot that could still do it, play for England or someone else. It’s what that player desires. For me, it was important to have a new challenge and learn more about my culture. Growing up, I wasn’t too close with the other side of my family and it was really important for me to reconnect that whole side I was missing, I felt like I was missing a piece.
“On the pitch, I just wanted to prove myself on the international stage, show what I’m capable of, and push myself out of my comfort zone. I’ve never played against most of these countries and like I said earlier, I wish I’d done it earlier because now I’m getting older I don’t have as much time.”