EDUCATION CITY, Qatar — Yassine Bounou was the last one to leave the Morocco dressing room, clearly exhausted mentally but with a huge smile on his face. And because Bounou (or Bono) is one of the nicest guys in football, his evening was not done just yet. Two hours after his team’s historic victory against Spain, he was still giving interviews to pretty much anyone who was asking for one. For radio, for TV, for written press, in English, in Spanish, in Arabic, in French. Every time, he recalled his incredible heroics during the penalty shootout.

“It was incredible,” he told ESPN. “It is a historical moment. I hadn’t even prepared for the shootout that much. There was so much pressure in the game so I just tried to enjoy it.

“For the penalties, it is about instinct, a bit of luck and that’s it, there is not much else.”

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And every time he speaks, his gentle voice and his big grin highlight once more what this historic FIFA World Cup result means to him, to his teammates, and to their people.

“We are so happy for the fans, for our people, for our families,” he said. “We are starting to realise what this win represents for Morocco but also all around the world. We felt the incredible support from our fans and we used it today.”

Whether Morocco beat Portugal in the quarterfinals or not, Bounou will be a hero forever. The Atlas Lions have reached the last eight of a World Cup for the first time, and it is mostly thanks to him. He stopped the penalties from Carlos Soler and Sergio Busquets, and if Pablo Sarabia‘s spot-kick hadn’t hit the post, Bounou had dived the right way anyway and would have saved it had it been on target.

The Moroccan is a very good penalty stopper. He stopped two spot-kicks in the same game once: against FC Salzburg in the UEFA Champions League in Sep. 2021. In the calendar year 2021, he saved five of the 13 penalties that he faced. Before the shootout against Spain, he had saved 13 of the past 50 taken against him. Not a bad ratio at all. And maybe because Walid Regragui trusted his keeper so much, or maybe because he didn’t want to tempt fate either, the Morocco head coach didn’t ask his players to practise penalties the day before the game. He let them play with their flair and guts, and it worked so well.

Romain Saiss, the Morocco captain, was full of praise for his teammate.

“It is amazing for him,” Saiss told ESPN. “He had a heroic game today, not only during the penalties. He just wanted to show why he was named best LaLiga goalkeeper last season. He is a great keeper, he proved it against Spain. We owe him a lot today.”

Saiss and Bounou have been playing together for years. The keeper is different to his captain: he is more introverted, calm, reserved. but so efficient. The only goal he has conceded in this World Cup is that scored by teammate Nayef Aguerd against Canada. Together with Achraf Hakimi, Aguerd and Noussair Mazraoui, Saiss forms the best defence in the competition. And Bounou commands his back four so well; he has natural leadership qualities even if he doesn’t talk too much.

“We trust him,” Azzedine Ounahi, Morocco’s brilliant midfielder, told ESPN. “We know he is an excellent keeper. We knew that if we got to the penalties, he would do the job for us. And he did. Spain didn’t even score a single penalty.

“He is among the best goalkeepers in the world, and he proved it today.”

The belief and trust in Bounou from Regragui and the squad is clearly one of the keys of the Moroccan success in Qatar. At 31, this is the stage Bounou has dreamed of since he was growing up in Montreal, Canada. With Sevilla, whom he joined in the summer of 2019 from Girona, he has achieved great things, won big trophies such as the UEFA Europa League, and created big upsets.

Now he wants to do it with Morocco, and he will be confident that he and his teammates can reproduce their efforts when they face Portugal Saturday. The celebrations will continue awhile, but Bounou, despite standing 191cm (6-foot-3), will not be noticed or put himself forward. However, as soon as the ball is kicked against Portugal, he will feel like he is on a mission again.

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Bounou the calm presence behind Morocco’s World Cup success