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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - RIYADH: Mohamed Salah, Riyad Mahrez, Hakim Ziyech, and Achraf Hakimi are probably the best-known Arab stars active in Europe.
Whether it is for winning trophies, scoring goals, or earning plaudits, they have made plenty of headlines over the years as they play for some of the biggest clubs in the world.
Now, there is another name that has to be mentioned in the same breath and that is Yassine Bounou.
The Moroccan goalkeeper has had quite a few months, and just this week was the toast of Sevilla after helping his team win the Europa League title on Wednesday. In a penalty shootout against Roma in Budapest, Bounou saved penalties from Gianluca Mancini and Roger Ibanez as the Spaniards lifted the trophy for a magnificent seventh time.
The first save from Mancini proved a turning point. After 120 minutes of fractious football ended 1-1, the shootout stood at 2-1 for Sevilla as the Roma captain stepped up. The goalkeeper flung himself to the left, the defender went down the middle, but Bounou somehow got his feet to the ball. As well as a big save, it was an impressive one.
The second from Ibanez was even more impressive, the slight touch that diverted the ball onto the post almost imperceptible at first viewing.
In the chaos of the madcap game, the man known as Bono kept his cool, perhaps helped by football education as a kid on the streets of Casablanca.
“I have already lived moments like this, and I understood that I needed to stay calm today,” he said after the game and a second individual Europa League prize.
“It’s been a year with a lot of emotions, with the World Cup, then Sevilla, and I needed to take it easy for that.”
It was not just about the shootout. Throughout the game he was operating at the highest level and was named man of the match for his heroics. He follows such names as the original Ronaldo, Hernan Crespo, and Brazil’s 1994 World Cup-winning goalkeeper Claudio Taffarel in that particular individual prize.
It was not the first time that he had been named the best player in a high-profile game and, as the 32-year-old pointed out, not the first time he had been saving penalties in high-pressure situations. The last time he did it was against the Spanish, not for them.
After the North Africans topped a tough 2022 World Cup group containing Croatia, Belgium, and Canada they were rewarded with a second-round clash with Spain. Most expected that the run would end there.
Yet Morocco went toe-to-toe with the 2010 champions with a place in the last eight at stake in the knowledge that they had a top-class goalkeeper at the back. After 120 minutes of intense football and no goals, there was a shootout. This time Bounou made two saves, first from Carlos Soler and then from Sergio Busquets.
In the quarterfinals, he starred once again, keeping another clean sheet as the Atlas Lions defeated Portugal 1-0 to become the talk of the World Cup. He was named the man of the match by FIFA.
“Pinch me, I think I’m dreaming,” he said after the game as he looked forward to being part of the first Arab team to reach the last four of the biggest sporting event in the world.
Morocco had become the story of the World Cup, and not just the team but the fans who took over stadiums in Qatar to make every game feel like a home one.
The miracle came to an end against France, but it was another hard-fought game and added to the respect and affection felt for the Moroccans.
The likes of Ziyech and Hakimi, with Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain, respectively, played their part but so did the Canadian-born shotstopper.
Bounou was aware of what had been achieved and knew that it was important that the national team built on that success.
“These moments are great, but we’re here to change the mentality. With this feeling of inferiority, we have to get rid of it. The Moroccan player can face any in the world. The generation coming after us will know we can create miracles,” he added.
That is the mentality of a winner and what he said about Morocco could also apply to the Arab world. It is clearly a matter important to the player. At the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations, that took place in early 2022, Bounou spoke Arabic even when organizers in Cameroon asked for English and French only as they did not have Arabic translators available.
“This is your problem, not mine,” he said.
The same could be said for opponent players who are facing Bounou from the spot in the latter stages of a major international tournament. In the past few months, he has come to be seen as a leading goalkeeper and there is surely more to come.
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