Bounou the calm presence behind Morocco’s World Cup success

EDUCATION CITY, Qatar – Yassine Bounou was the last to exit the Moroccan dressing room, visibly exhausted but with a big smile on her face. And because Bounou (or Bono) is one of the nicest guys in football, his evening wasn’t over yet. Two hours after his side’s historic victory over Spain, he was still giving interviews to pretty much anyone who asked. For radio, television, press, in English, in Spanish, in Arabic, in French. Each time he recalled his incredible exploits during the penalty shootout.

“It was incredible,” he told ESPN. “It’s a historic moment. I didn’t even prepare that well for the penalty shootout. There was so much pressure in the game so I just tried to enjoy it.”

“Penalties are about instinct, a bit of luck and that’s it, that’s all.”

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And every time he speaks, his soft voice and broad grin underscore what this historic FIFA World Cup result means to him, his team-mates and their people.

“We’re so happy for the fans, for our people, for our families,” he said. “We are beginning to understand what this victory means for Morocco, but also for the whole world. We felt the incredible support of our fans and we used it today.”

Whether or not Morocco beats Portugal in the quarter-finals, Bounou will forever be a hero. The Atlas Lions have reached the last eight of a World Cup for the first time, and that’s largely thanks to him. He stopped Carlos Soler and Sergio Busquets’ penalties and if Pablo Sarabia’s free-kick hadn’t hit the post Bounou would have dived in the right direction anyway and saved if it fell on target.

The Moroccan is a very good penalty taker. He once saved two penalties in the same game: against FC Salzburg in the UEFA Champions League in September 2021. In calendar year 2021 he saved five out of 13 penalties he was exposed to. Before the penalty shoot-out against Spain, he had saved 13 of the last 50 goals scored against him. Not a bad relationship at all. And perhaps because Walid Regragui trusted his keeper so much, or maybe because he didn’t want to tempt fate, the Moroccan boss didn’t ask his players to practice penalties the day before the game. He let her play with her flair and guts, and it worked so well.

Romain Saiss, the Moroccan captain, was full of praise for his team-mate.

“It’s amazing for him,” Saiss told ESPN. “He showed heroic play today, not just on penalties. He just wanted to show why he was named LaLiga’s best goalkeeper last season. He’s a great goalkeeper, he proved that against Spain. We owe him a lot today owe.”

Saiss and Bounou have been playing together for years. The keeper is different than his captain: he is more introverted, calmer, more reserved, but so efficient. The only goal he has conceded at this World Cup is that of teammate Nayef Aguerd against Canada. Along with Achraf Hakimi, Aguerd and Noussair Mazraoui, Saiss forms the best defense in the competition. And Bounou handles his back four so well; He has natural leadership qualities even if he doesn’t talk too much.

“We trust him,” Azzedine Ounahi, Morocco’s brilliant midfielder, told ESPN. “We know he’s an excellent goalkeeper. We knew that if we went to penalties he would do the work for us. And he did. Spain didn’t even get a single penalty.”

“He’s one of the best goalkeepers in the world and he proved that today.”

The belief and trust of Regragui and the Bounou squad is clearly one of the keys to Morocco’s success in Qatar. At 31, this is the stage Bounou has dreamed of since growing up in Montreal, Canada. He has achieved great things with Sevilla, joining from Girona in the summer of 2019, winning big trophies like the UEFA Europa League and causing big upsets.

Now he wants to make it with Morocco and will be confident he and his team-mates can repeat their efforts when they face Portugal on Saturday. The celebrations will continue for a while, but Bounou, despite being 191 cm (6ft 3) tall, will not be noticed or pushed to the front. But as soon as the ball kicks against Portugal, he’ll feel like he’s on a mission again.

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