Morocco were, undoubtedly, the biggest overachievers of the 2022 World Cup. In defeating Portugal in the quarterfinals, they surpassed the previous record set by Cameroon ’90, Senegal ’02, and Ghana ’10 – who set tremendous a ceiling for African international sides at the World Cup – and in turn achieved beyond what was thought possible, a World Cup semi-final.
Although the Atlas Lions ended their last two World Cup tournaments – France 98’ and Russia 18’ – in elimination at the group stage, Walid Regragui and his team were determined to make an impact on this tournament. “We came into the tournament with great ambition to change mindsets in our continent,” Regragui remarked about his teams’ goals heading into Qatar.
And while Achraf Hakimi, Yassine Bounou, Sofiane Boufal and Hakim Ziyech are among the list of players who will probably hog the front cover of the inevitable books yet to be seen covering Morocco’s remarkable rise, Azzedine Ounahi certainly does have a shout of being one of the most inspired, valuable and leading players in this edition of the World Cup.
The trail of Ounahi’s growing importance to this Morocco side is easily discernible. In a qualifying game against the Democratic Republic of Congo, he scored two goals in a 4-1 victory that proved decisive in ensuring that Morocco secured their World Cup ticket. This match took place a mere two months after Ounahi made his Morocco debut on January 10, signaling his glaring rise to prominence in the national team.
After dealing with a tough group that saw Morocco face up against the silver and bronze medalists of 2018, Croatia and Belgium, conceding just one goal and defeating Belgium’s bruised and beleaguered golden generation 2-0, they faced a Spain side managed by one of Ounahi’s personal heroes, Luis Enrique.
In this match, Morocco displayed their bravery to take the game to their opponents. Throughout the four weeks, Regragui’s side played with an invigored and refreshing fearlessness. This alone, if not their extraordinary tactical discipline, skillful and inspired performers, or wickedly obstreperous support, would be enough to propel them past a Spain side that according to Sportsmole, has a squad value of over £500 million more than that of Morocco.
As expected, Spain dominated the proceedings in terms of possession and shots. However, Morocco’s clever tactical planning, which set out to nullify Spain’s attack, proved extremely effective. And after the crushing blow of getting knocked out on penalties in a major tournament yet again, Enrique revealed in his final Spain press conference: “I’m sorry, I can’t remember his name. Where did this kid come from? He can really play. He surprised me. He didn’t stop running, he must be exhausted.”
This was, of course, referring to Ounahi who completed more passes than any other Morocco player against Spain and covered 14.7 km, more than any other player at this year’s World Cup. Born in Casablanca, Ounahi began his football career at the prestigious Raja Casablanca at the age of 10. He then moved on to the popular Mohammed VI football academy at the age of 15, a move that proved absolutely crucial to Ounahi’s development as a footballer.
The Mohammed VI Football Academy is located in Sala al Jadida, a few towns away from Rabat, Morocco. It was inaugurated by the King Mohammed VI of Morocco and the project was inspired as the country had identified a clear lack of high-quality sporting facilities in Morocco. When the academy opened its doors, sporting development and education were made a vital part of the project’s vision.
Junior footballers would be prepped for years, blanketed with a regimented sports study curriculum with the intention being that they would eventually be ready for professional leagues. Not only this, but most students of the academy graduated with a bachelor’s degree, signaling the academy’s professional and ethical approach to nurturing their students.
The Mohammed VI Football Academy has solidified itself as one of the best academies in the world, producing such talents as Youssef En-Nesyri, Nayef Aguerd and Azzedine Ounahi. These players, alongside the likes of Ziyech, Boufal and Hakimi, were the leading lights for Morocco in Qatar.
“Skill has always existed in Morocco, but proper training of talents at a younger age was lacking,” said Tarik El Khazri, one of the leading coaches of the Mohammed VI academy. It is self-evident that this focus from Morocco on the development of its academy framework has proven instrumental in building one of the world’s best international sides.
The Numbers behind Ounahi’s Brilliance
Ounahi left Morocco in 2018 and made his first inroads in Europe with Strasbourg’s B team in France’s third division, but it was his eventual move to Angers where he established himself as a key player straight away under Gérard Baticle, making 32 league appearances at just 21 years of age.
This journey for Ounahi has been littered with landmarks. He was called up to Morocco’s African Cup of Nations squad without having made an appearance for the national team. He then scored two goals, as mentioned previously, against Congo in a contest that ultimately ensured qualification for the World Cup in Qatar.
Despite his slim frame, Ounahi is an aggressive box-to-box midfielder who is as capable of winning in a ground duel as he is of effortlessly evading past five challenges and gliding across the pitch like Teflon, and this is evidenced in his impressive underlying numbers at Angers this year.
Ounahi – as per FBref’s scout report – is in the 99th percentile amongst his positional peers in Europe’s top five leagues for dribbles attempted per 90 (4.48). His shot creation numbers likewise make for impressive reading as he has averaged 0.43 successful dribbles leading to shots per 90, putting him in the 79th percentile for that particular category.
Additionally, the perceived aggressive bite to Ounahi’s game is not made hazy by his numbers defensively. He is in the 93rd percentile of tackles made in the middle third of the pitch among his positional peers in Europe’s top five leagues, making 0.87 per 90.
After a breakout World Cup, Azzedine Ounahi will return to Angers alongside his compatriot Sofiane Boufal, but it remains to be seen how much longer the Moroccan duo will remain at the Stade Raymond Kopa. Angers currently find themselves adrift at the bottom of Ligue 1 with 8 points, five away from safety, and they could be looking to cash in on the two in order to receive a much-needed financial windfall.
At 22 years old, Ounahi has held his own in midfield alongside the likes of Luka Modric, Pedri, Kevin De Bruyne, Bruno Fernandes and more, a dynamic box-to-box midfielder who is equally adept at bursting forward with the ball as he is coming out on top in a 50-50. He has played a crucial role in Morocco’s unprecedented run to the semifinals, and he looks set to reap the rewards by earning himself a big-money transfer next month.
By: Ogunniyi Abayomi / @OGUNNIYIABAYOM1
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / DeFodi Images