FEATURE | From the N1 to the World Cup semi-final in 18 months: The story of Azzedine Ounahi – Ligue 1’s World Cup breakout player

Spain manager Luis Enrique didn’t even know Azzedine Ounahi’s (22) name in the wake of Morocco’s shock penalty shoot-out victory over La Roja in the World Cup round of 16, never mind for whom he played, and it is partially due to where the Moroccan midfielder plays his club football that has seen him slip under the radar. Shackled and concealed at rock bottom Ligue 1 side SCO Angers, Ounahi has nonetheless taken his chance to shine on the world stage. 

The number 8 really surprised me,” began Enrique. “Sorry, I can’t remember his name. But where does this guy come from?!? He played really well; he really surprised me.” Without any hint of disrespect towards Ounahi, Enrique’s words likely resonated with many. The Angers midfielder impressed against Spain, covering 15 kilometres, winning 70% of his ground duels and showing an impressive array of progressive distribution. 

But people can be forgiven for having not heard of him. After all, it was only 18 months ago that Ounahi was lining up against teams such as Martigues, Sedan and Villefranche for Avranches in the N1, the third-tier of French football.  The Casablanca-born midfielder scored five goals in his only season with the N1 side, before making the move to Ligue 1 side Angers. Whilst geographically speaking it was a short move, with only 200km separating the two clubs, the step up entailed a considerable step-up in quality. 

It would have been understandable if Ounahi had his own self-doubts. The Moroccan had already once tried and failed, to make it in Ligue 1, having arrived at Strasbourg from Morocco in 2018, only to be deemed not up to standard, and subsequently relegated to the third tier of French football. At the time, Ounahi was considered too “frail” to make it in the top flight, and when he made the move to Avranches, he did so with his confidence barely intact, as the manager of the time Frédéric Reculeau revealed. “I saw a sad, closed boy arrive. He was unhappy that Strasbourg hadn’t believed in him, even though he had been promised a contract. At the start, it was difficult to get him to come out of his shell because he didn’t necessarily believe in us,” he said.

Reculeau continued, “He remained quite introverted, He was in his own world, with the desire to succeed. There was no deviation on his part, only the will to bounce back and leave for a successful club as quickly as possible.” And leave he did. Caen were touted as a potential destination for Ounahi, but ultimately, he skipped the Ligue 2 stepping-stone, jumping directly into Ligue 1. 

If there was any self-doubt about his ability to compete in one of the top five divisions in Europe, then it didn’t show. Brought onto the pitch with only 15 minutes to go in his debut against Lyon, Ounahi scored his first Ligue 1 goal in a 3-0 victory of Peter Bosz’s side. He was consigned to a spot on the bench for five of the first six gameweeks of the 2021/22 Ligue 1 season, but Ounahi made his first start against Marseille and registered his first assist for the club in the following match against Troyes.

Gérald Baticle’s side comfortably stayed up that season, and Ounahi looked ready to take a further step in his development. Lille were ready to spend €7m on the player, according to L’ÉquipeLes Dogues president Olivier Létang is quoted saying, “We followed [Ounahi] because he would really fit in with our style of play. He is fluid and dynamic. He can do lots of things, and get the ball out under pressure. I even asked Vahid Halilhodzic (Morocco manager at the time) about him. He has a lot of potential.” 

However, a lot of that potential has been concealed this season. Angers sit rock-bottom of Ligue 1 and recently parted ways with Baticle. No one has conceded more goals than the club, whilst only Ajaccio and Auxerre have scored fewer. To shine in such circumstances is no easy task, but lined up alongside Nabil Bentaleb, another player touted for a winter move, Ounahi has nonetheless shown glimpses of his capabilities. 

Reculeau evokes Ounahi’s “great technical quality”, his ability to comprehend and carry out instructions and his capacity to cover long distances and at a high pace. “Normally players have only one or the other, he has the ability to [run for a long time, whilst maintaining the capacity to accelerate,” said Reculeau. 

With Morocco at this World Cup, those qualities have been on show, and in abundance. Unshackled by the mental and more tangible constraints that playing in an underperforming side brings, Ounahi has been the driving force in Morocco’s midfield, and a crucial component in the country’s historic journey. His performances have already caught the eyes of some of Europe’s elite if reports in Spain are to be believed. Mundo Deportivo are reporting that Barcelona are potentially readying a January bid, which would represent a stratospheric rise for a player, who only 18 months ago was rebuilding his career in the N1. 

In the meantime, Ounahi’s focus is on beating France. It is an enormous task, but having already beaten Spain and then Portugal in the quarter-final, anything is possible. Ounahi himself doesn’t seem the slightest bit daunted by Wednesday’s semi-final against the reigning world champions. His most recent post-match interview was more evocative of a 1-0 win against Troyes than a quarter-final victory against Euro 2016 champions Portugal. “We’re very happy to get the three points and pass through to the next round,” he said in his interview with beIN Sports. Such a banal error is an indication of the serenity with which he is approaching this historic event. He continued, “We want to go very, very far. We have confidence in the group and I think this new generation are going to go on a real journey.”

If Morocco are on a journey, then Ounahi is certainly one of their guides, and should Morocco progress on Wednesday, he will be under no allusions that the Atlas Lions have achieved more than the common “three points.” This journey and his rise are anything other than what can be perceived as common or ordinary.

GFFN | Luke Entwistle 

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