By Mark Gleeson
DOHA, Dec 13 (Reuters) – Midfielder Azzedine Ounahi, who until now was little known on the soccer planet, is one of the most attention-grabbing players at the World Cup.
The 22-year-old midfielder has been linked by the Spanish sports press with Barcelona, and his French club Angers are resigned to losing him after his outstanding performances en route to Morocco’s semi-finals in Qatar. If his signing were to go through in January, it would be an extraordinary rise, achieved almost only on football’s biggest stage, as Ounahi went to the World Cup without recognition outside his country.
Thin and frail, he looks like a featherweight, but his performances in the Moroccan team have made him shine with his own light, even with more well-known teammates also turning heads and taking man of the match awards.
“Which rival player has impressed me? The number 8 has pleasantly surprised me. I don’t remember his name anymore, I’m sorry,” said the Spanish coach, Luis Enrique, highlighting Ounahi’s lack of prominence after Morocco eliminated his equipment.
Two and a half years ago, Ounahi was playing for Avranches in the French third division, having been loaned out by Racing Strasbourg after moving from Morocco at the age of 15.
In 2021, around this time, he received Morocco’s first call-up for the African Cup of Nations, which was held in Cameroon, by surprise, where he started the first game.
On Wednesday, in the semifinal against France, he will play his 16th game with Morocco this year, in which he has taken control of the midfield. Ounahi leads the team in possession of the ball, cleverly linking play with a wide range of passes, quick movement in tight spaces and seemingly endless energy.
In the match against Spain, he ran almost 15 kilometers.
“He will go a long way, that’s for sure. I know I won’t be able to keep him for long. But we accept it, because we are a springboard club, which discovers players,” Angers president Said Chabane told French radio on Tuesday.
According to the Spanish press, the value of Ounahi’s transfer before the World Cup, of 4 million euros (4.25 million dollars), will have increased, and Barcelona is preparing to make an offer.
Morocco coach Walid Regragui said it was inevitable that the world would take notice of his players, but talk of transfers was premature with the team still in the tournament.
“There are some players in small clubs – I don’t like to use that term – so this is a good event to show their quality,” he said. “Everyone is concentrated for the World Cup. They want to make history, and then their agents will be able to do business.”
(1 dollar = 0.9407 euros) (Edited in Spanish by Javier Leira)