The hopes of Morocco, the Arab world, and Africa lay on Yassine Bounou’s shoulders as the spotlight fell on him during Morocco’s penalty shootout triumph over Spain in the round of 16 of the World Cup.
Bounou – or ‘Bono’ as he likes to be known – almost thrived under that pressure. Calmly taking his place in goal, grinning as his opponent’s walked up to him, and staying equal to three penalties, which would have been four having guessed right for Pablo Sarabia’s spot-kick that hit the post, to take his country into their first-ever World Cup quarterfinal.
He was given due credit by his teammates and manager in the aftermath, midfielder Azzedine Ounahi even saying he is “one of the best goalkeepers in the world”, but for the most part, Bounou was comfortable being out of the limelight. He let his teammates soak in the moment, felt no need to put himself forward, or to hail himself as highly as his teammates. “For the penalties, it is about instinct, a bit of luck and that’s it, there is not much else,” he said after the match.
Despite his show of humility in the aftermath of what was the greatest footballing moment of his nation, Bounou’s calm, self-assured presence in goal has been central to Morocco’s remarkable World Cup run which saw them top a group that had European heavyweights like Belgium and Croatia. He had already played a significant role by making key saves to keep a clean sheet against Spain. The defence in front of him, composed of Achraf Hakimi, Noussair Mazraoui, Nayef Aguerd, and Romain Saiss, conceded only one goal in four matches against top-tier opposition.
That goal, perhaps ironically, came as Aguerd’s own goal against Canada. Born in Montreal, Bounou did, at one point, have the opportunity to represent Canada but instead chose Morocco after his family moved back to their native country when he was a child. His first big break came with local club Wydad Casablanca, where he showed enough promise for Atletico Madrid to snap him up.
He had agreed to play for the B team in the second division of Spain for two years, before getting the callup to the senior team, but never getting a single appearance. He instead spent that time out on loan with second division team Real Zaragoza, and then got a three-year-long permanent stint with Girona.
Despite a promising youth career, Bounou had to earn his stripes in the second division of Spain before getting a big move to Sevilla, who converted his one-year-long loan into a permanent move. The hard yards are visible in his humble demeanour as well as his ignited passion for Morocco. And even if he does not talk too much off the pitch, in the manner in which he has guided his back four to being the best defence of the World Cup, his natural leadership is also on show.
Whether he likes the limelight or not, it is certain that each member of this team has become a Moroccan hero, and none more so than Bounou.
Bounou’s penalty-saving record is remarkable, making him something of a spot-kick specialist for Morocco. In a Champions League game with Sevilla in 2021, Bounou saved two penalties in the same game with Salzburg FC. That calendar year, he saved 5 of the 13 penalties he was in goal for.
His total save percentage from the spot stands at 26%, a very handy rate, saving 13 of the 50 penalties he had faced prior to the game against Spain. Perhaps his composure in goal had to do with belief in his own abilities, which is also may be why, as Bounou revealed after the game, coach Walid Regragui did not have the side practice too many penalties.
Morocco’s quarterfinal opponents Portugal will be wary of Bounou’s abilities in goal, and on penalties in general. If the game is tight and ends up in a shootout, their lesser-experienced keeper Diogo Costa will hand the edge to Bounou, who will be tuned in to get another crack at making history for his country.