The story of Yassine Bounou, Morocco’s smiling World Cup hero

The Moroccan goalkeeper has been instrumental in his country’s run to the World Cup semifinals.

Morocco's goalkeeper Yassine Bounou
Yassine Bounou has been one of the breakout stars of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar [Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP]

The Moroccan national team is in the semifinals of the World Cup – a first for both African and Arab countries.

Pundits have been unanimous in their analysis: The Atlas Lions have advanced this far because of their stellar defending. The football team has conceded just one goal in the tournament – an own goal against Canada.

A compact 4-1-4-1 defensive bloc has squeezed out any space that could be found between the lines in midfield and defence.

The only thing more frustrating for their opponents than their impermeable defending is glancing over at Morocco goalkeeper Yassine Bounou and realising that he is smiling through it all.

Take the tense shootout in the last 16 against Spain, for example. The 31-year-old was photographed shooting a toothy grin, while mid-air, at Sergio Busquets before successfully parrying Spain’s third penalty kick.

It was one of about a dozen wry smiles he shot the Spanish and Portuguese players throughout the knockout stages.

“If he’s not smiling, there’s a problem,” Christophe Revel, Bounou’s former goalkeeping coach for the Moroccan national team, revealed to Radio France International.

In most of his sit-down interviews, the goalkeeper sits back cross-legged and thoroughly thinks through his answers before responding pensively.

If he weren’t a footballer, it is very easy to imagine him with a career in academia.

Bounou was born in Montreal, Canada. The family moved back to Casablanca, Morocco when he was three. There, he grew up in a comfortable, middle-class setting, and eventually attended one of Morocco’s best French secondary schools.

Morocco's goalkeeper Yassine Bounou
A smiling Bounou after the team’s quarterfinal win over Portugal [KARIM JAAFAR/AFP]

But Bounou’s laid-back attitude does not come from a place of arrogance. Rather, his serene personality originates from being exposed to high-pressure situations early in his career.

After joining Wydad Athletic Club at the age of eight, Bounou quickly rose up the ranks of Morocco’s most successful football club. Still, nothing could have prepared him for his eventual professional debut, which came in the second leg of the 2011 African Champions League final against Tunisian giants, Espérance Sportive de Tunis.

“It was difficult for that to be my first match. I felt like if the game went poorly, my career could have gone one way, and if I did well, it would have gone the other way,” he told Moroccan TV channel M24TV prior to the World Cup.

He pulled off a string of saves but was beaten by a world-class effort from Ghanaian fullback Harrison Afful. Despite the result, his performance on the night caught the eye of Atletico de Madrid scouts who offered him a contract to play for Los Colchoneros.

The Madrid club initially proposed a salary less than what he was getting at Wydad and they were also clear he would play third fiddle to Thibaut Courtois and Jan Oblak.

Proving his ambition, Bounou jumped on the opportunity.

Predictably, Bounou needed successive loan spells to second-division club Real Zaragoza and then a horizontal move to Girona FC to earn game time. His toils in the second division were happily punctuated with Girona’s promotion to La Liga, which eventually earned him a move to one of Spain’s biggest clubs, Sevilla FC. He has blossomed into a world-class keeper ever since.

During the 2021-2022 Liga season, Bounou posted a save percentage of almost 78 percent, which was the sixth-best in Europe.

Throughout 2021, he also kept more clean sheets than any goalkeeper in Europe when counting matches for club and country – 32 in 59 matches.

Bounou and his son play together on the pitch after the win over Portugal [Carl Recine/Reuters]

“He’s a top keeper,” Revel said. “He’s mastered one-on-ones, he quickly goes to the ground, he has great feet and he can read the aerial game well, too. Most importantly, he is cold-blooded … if he had been the goalkeeper for Belgium or England, he would be a star, but Morocco is not the most followed nation.”

Off of the pitch, the relaxed net-minder has learned to become more of a leader. At Sevilla, he plays a “big brother” role for the two other Moroccan internationals at the club: Youssef En-Nesyri and Munir El Haddadi.

His relationship with the former is particularly strong, to the point that when he received his player-of-the-match award in the World Cup quarterfinal win over Portugal, Bounou turned right around and dedicated the trophy to En-Nesyri.

As a public figure, Bounou has also demonstrated that he understands that it is now paramount to be careful of his public image.

“We have a responsibility to play well, but also be aware that we represent Morocco abroad and the people we meet view us that way,” he added in the interview with M24TV.

“Just as [Noureddine] Naybet and Zaki [Badou] led the way for us, we have to set a good example for Moroccan kids who want to follow in our footsteps.”

Moroccans of all walks of life are hanging on to every second of this fairytale 2022 World Cup journey and they owe a lot of their joy to Bounou.

In a post-match press conference, coach Walid Regragui affirmed that observation.

“When you know you have Bounou in goal, that always gives you confidence … he’s one of the best goalkeepers in the world,” he said.

Morocco will most likely employ the same stifling tactics for their semifinal against France. Yet even if the reigning world champions manage to do the improbable and pierce Regragui’s defensive lines, they still would have the gargantuan task of beating Bounou and his goofy smirk.

And that may prove to be quite an obstacle.

Source: Al Jazeera