Morocco goalkeeper Yassine Bounou hopes the Atlas Lions’ “miracle” run to the World Cup semi-finals convinces future generations of Moroccan talent to no longer have an inferiority complex.
After eliminating Spain on penalties in the last 16, Morocco arguably produced an even bigger shock as Walid Regragui’s men beat Portugal 1-0 at Al Thumama Stadium on Saturday.
Youssef En-Nesyri’s first-half header proved decisive, ensuring Morocco became the first African team to reach the semi-finals of a World Cup.
While En-Nesyri’s goal was ultimately crucial, Morocco would not have held on were it not for the heroics of Bounou in net; his saves from Joao Felix and Cristiano Ronaldo in the latter stages helped them cling on to their famous result, also earning him the Player of the Match award.
Unsurprisingly, the Sevilla goalkeeper was in a state of jubilant shock, but he and the team want their run to inspire greater belief for the next generation.
Bounou, who earned his 50th cap on Saturday, told reporters: “We’re in the same state as you are. Pinch me, I think I’m dreaming!
“But as our coach said, we’re here to change the mentality. This feeling of inferiority we’ve had, we need to get rid of it.
“A Moroccan player can face anyone in the world.
“The most important thing is we’ve changed this mentality and the generation coming after us will now know a Moroccan team can create miracles.
“It’s really, really hard to find the words to describe this moment. All our team, the supporters on our backs, this is all I have.
“All the players put in a stellar performance. We had injuries, all the players on the pitch were at the highest level. It’s hard to describe such a joy.”
Bounou was also keen not to take too much of the glory for himself after earning the gong for the match’s best player, having become the first African goalkeeper to keep three clean sheets at a single World Cup.
3 – Yassine Bounou, who made his 50th appearance for Morocco tonight, is the first African goalkeeper to record three clean sheets in a single edition of the World Cup. Heroic.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe)
And it was not the award itself that filled him with pride, rather the expectation that Moroccans will see him as a beacon of hope en route to the top of the game.
“I got this award because I have great players with me. All of them, all of them on the pitch are fantastic,” he continued.
“When someone hears about a Moroccan player, they might know now that they can actually play at the highest level. This is what makes me proud.”
When having his photo shoot with the Player of the Match trophy, Bounou invited match-winner En-Nesyri in with him, even passing the prize to his colleague.
The two are club-mates at Sevilla, where En-Nesyri has struggled for form over the past 18 months – in fact, his trio of goals in Qatar is three more than he has managed in LaLiga this season.
Despite En-Nesyri’s problems at club level, Regragui insists he never lost faith in the striker.
“I’ve always believed in Youssef. Even Moroccan journalists criticised me when I defended him, but he’s here,” Regragui said.
“I accepted the criticism and I said to him he is a top player. He’s the top scorer in history for Morocco at the World Cup.
“I told him, the answer is on the pitch. This is going to be a lesson in the future. Coaches have reasons for choices and I’ve always believed in him, because of his energy on the pitch, that’s why he plays for Sevilla.
“He’s like [Olivier] Giroud for France, he works so hard for the team. Sometimes [these types of strikers] are criticised. He’s from Morocco, he trained in Morocco and he’s an important player.
“I’m very proud of him. His goal was a sign of destiny.”