He was, for the great and the good of elite football, simply “the No 8”.
“I’m sorry but I forget his name,” exclaimed Luis Enrique, after the Spain team he coached had just been knocked out of the World Cup by Morocco, “but the No 8 was a very impressive surprise. He never stopped running. He played so well”.
Then there was Jose Mourinho, who knew a few more details about the awesome No 8. The Roma manager, whose native Portugal would be next on Morocco’s list of conquests through their history-making run to the semi-finals of Qatar 2022, revealed his admiration. “The No 8, who plays for Angers, was absolutely incredible,” Mourinho said in an interview.
“My word,” sighed Luis Enrique, “where did this guy come from?”
The answer to that is its own fairytale, because 22-year-old Azzedine Ounahi, Morocco’s industrious, creative and bold No 8, was, barely 19 months ago, playing in the French third division for Avranches. The rise in the last six weeks has been meteoric. The real question now is not so much "Where did this guy come from?" but "where is he going next?"
It is unusual for a modern World Cup to be a genuine shop window for talent. Most clubs who invest heavily in transfers have broad scouting networks devoted to identifying potential while players are still teenagers, armed with television footage of even the most remote youth tournaments and data analyses supplied by specialist agencies.
But Morocco’s lesser-known talents surprised many coaches other than Luis Enrique during the World Cup. Several Moroccans are about to animate the winter transfer window when it opens at the beginning of January.
At Angers, Morocco’s success is a double-edged sword. Under contract at the club are Soufiane Boufal, the winger who gave constructive flair to Walid Regragui’s well-organised and confident team through the eye-catching wins over Belgium, Spain – on penalties – and Portugal, as well as Ounahi, who the club had the foresight to sign from Avranches in the summer of 2021 and, a year later, to extend his deal until 2026.
Boufal, whose contract expires in 2024, has indicated he wants to depart, and at 29, to move quickly to a club that will give him a better platform for the last of his peak years. Ounahi, meanwhile, has been the subject of numerous enquiries.
Morocco stars welcomed home
“We’ve had approaches from big clubs and medium-sized clubs,” the Angers president Said Chabane told the French broadcaster RTL. “They are coming from all over: Italy, Spain, England, France.”
The Angers plan, Chabane added, would be a sale agreement for summer 2023, with Ounahi remaining at Angers on loan for the remainder of this season.
Angers need Ounahi. They are bottom of Ligue 1, already five points from relegation safety. But the club also need liquidity, being under tight restrictions on their spending from the body that monitors and controls club finances in French professional football. An offer representing a vast profit on Ounahi, who Angers signed for under €100,000, will probably be irresistible, even if it comes without a loan-back arrangement.
Removing the restless Boufal, one of the higher earners at Angers, from the wage-bill and gaining a transfer fee – the club hope for as much as €10m – would also relieve the financial pressures.
Chabane admitted: “You can never keep a player who wants to leave,” and he recognises Ounahi’s ambition.
The more ardent suitors are believed to include Leicester City. Chabane has set an optimistic asking price of €45m, although offers of €25m and upwards will be favourably considered. Because of the unusually short period between the end of this World Cup – staged in winter and finishing two weeks ahead of the shorter of the calendar’s transfer windows, with just January to complete deals – there is an extra urgency to advance negotiations.
Morocco's path to the semi-final
At Fiorentina, where the lauded Sofyan Amrabat, 26, is under contract until 2024, enquiries are also being heard. Amrabat’s superb World Cup as enforcer of Morocco’s midfield had heightened interest from English clubs who had previously identified Amrabat’s energy and strength as suited to the Premier League.
Antonio Conte, the Tottenham head coach, was already an admirer from when he coached Inter during two of Amrabat’s three and half seasons in Italy. The player is reported to be enthusiastic about apparent Liverpool interest in him. Atletico Madrid are also keen, although they would not enter any auction at the top of Fiorentina’s lofty valuation of €50m-plus.
Other more established heroes of Morocco’s historic run are in demand. Captain Romain Saiss, who left Wolverhampton Wanderers for Besiktas only in August, is reportedly a target for France’s Lille and Spain’s Valencia.
Morocco vice-captain Hakim Ziyech has meanwhile returned to Chelsea, where he was open to being transferred out in the summer, more determined that if he continues to see as little first-team action as he did in the first three months of the club season – just one Premier League start out of a possible 13 – Chelsea should consider letting their World Cup semi-finalist explore alternatives.