Azzedine Ounahi has been at the heart of Morocco’s run to the 2022 Fifa World Cup semifinals, tirelessly stamping his authority on the midfield and emerging as one of the revelations of the tournament.
Yassine Bounou’s penalty-saving heroics stole the headlines in the last 16, but it was Ounahi who caught the eye of Spain coach Luis Enrique following his side’s shootout loss to Morocco.
“I was surprised by (Ounahi). My goodness, where does that boy come from?” asked Luis Enrique, in awe of the midfielder’s “spectacular” display.
“He plays like the Spanish players. He plays really well. I was very surprised. He hasn’t stopped running, he must be exhausted.”
On Wednesday he will face France, where he has forged his club career.
It was only 18 months ago that Ounahi was toiling away in the French third tier, his slender physique put through the rigours of lower-league football – a vital stepping stone on his journey.
Ounahi is one of four players in the Morocco squad who are a product of the Mohammed VI Academy in Sale, a state-of-the-art facility opened in 2009 and designed to develop the country’s young talent.
Morocco’s huge investment in its football infrastructure – after numerous failed bids to host the World Cup – is paying off, as the performance of the Atlas Lions in Qatar has shown.
Moroccan clubs are also the dominant force in African football right now – winners of the men’s and women’s Champions League titles as well as the Confederation Cup.
In addition, the Atlas Lionesses became the first ever North African team to qualify for the Women’s World Cup by virtue of finishing runners-up as hosts of this year’s Africa Cup of Nations.
Those successes are reflected by the progress made by the 22-year-old Ounahi, who has come on leaps and bounds since first signing for Strasbourg after leaving his homeland in 2018.
‘PHONE RINGING QUITE A LOT’
He is now with Ligue 1 club Angers, who have made a habit of developing and selling on players such as Nicolas Pepe, Karl Toko Ekambi and current Morocco captain Romain Saiss.
They are aware it won’t be long before Ounahi departs.
“Is the phone ringing? It’s ringing quite a lot,” Angers chairman Said Chabane told France’s RMC of the interest in Ounahi and countryman Sofiane Boufal, who has also started every game in Qatar.
“You know very well that we can’t hold back a player who wants to leave,” added Chabane, whose team sit bottom of France’s top flight after heading into the World Cup break with seven straight defeats.
Ounahi made his Ligue 1 debut at the beginning of last season, gradually forcing his way into the starting line-up for an Angers side that finished 14th.
He earned a call-up from Vahid Halilhodzic for the Afcon in Cameroon, winning his first cap in a 1-0 victory over Ghana but dropping to the bench once Morocco reached the knockout rounds.
A bystander during the fractious quarterfinal exit to Egypt, Ounahi seized his opportunity with both hands in the World Cup play-off against the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Unused in the 1-1 draw in the first leg, Ounahi struck twice and grabbed an assist in a 4-1 win in the return clash to seal Morocco’s place in Qatar.
He has started 10 of his country’s 11 games since, every bit as valuable to Walid Regragui, the French-born former Morocco international who replaced Halilhodzic as coach in August.
“Azzedine is a great player, he’s got a lot of high-level qualities, he’s only 22, he still has room for improvement, but I think he will play for a big club,” said Regragui.
“He will have to make the right choices.”
Ounahi, who has excelled alongside midfield enforcer Sofyan Amrabat, is a reported target for Barcelona. Fiorentina star Amrabat, 26, is also said to be on Liverpool’s radar.
A relative unknown outside his homeland and France, where only Lionel Messi has completed more dribbles in Ligue 1 this season, few are unlikely to forget Ounahi’s name after the World Cup.