World Cup: Morocco midfielder Ounahi goes from obscurity to transfer target

Ounahi's French club, Angers, say they are resigned to losing him after his standout performances for Morocco at the World Cup. PHOTO: AFP

DOHA - Several of Morocco’s big World Cup performers are already the subject of transfer speculation, with previously little-known midfielder Azzedine Ounahi attracting most attention.

Spain’s sport press have linked the 22-year-old midfielder to Barcelona and his French club Angers say they are resigned to losing him after standout performances as Morocco have gatecrashed the last four of the tournament in Qatar.

If he were to make a move in the January transfer window, it would be a remarkable rise, accomplished almost solely on football’s biggest stage as Ounahi arrived at the start of the World Cup unheralded outside of Morocco and Ligue 1.

Thin and frail, he looks a featherweight presence, but his performances in the heart of the Moroccan side have shone, even with better-known team mates also catching the eye and taking the man-of-the-match awards.

“Which opposing player impressed me? I was pleasantly surprised by number 8. I no longer remember his name, I’m sorry about that,” said Spanish coach Luis Enrique, highlighting Ounahi’s lack of profile, after Morocco knocked his team out.

From French third division

Two-and-a-half years ago, Ounahi was playing at Avranches in the French third division, having been released by Racing Strasbourg after moving from Morocco at the age of 15.

After one season, he moved into the top flight signed by Angers and this time last year got a surprise first callup by Morocco for the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon, where he went straight into the starting line-up for the first game.

Wednesday’s World Cup semi-final against France will mark his 16th game for Morocco this year, as he takes firm command of the midfield. Ounahi drives the team forward in possession, linking play cleverly with a wide range of passes, quick feet in small spaces and seemingly endless energy.

In the game against Spain, he ran almost 15km.

“He will go a long way, that’s for sure. I know I won’t be able to keep him for very long. But we accept that, because we are a club that is a springboard, which unearths players,” Angers president Said Chabane told French radio on Tuesday.

Spanish newspapers said Ounahi’s pre-World Cup transfer value of €4 million (S$5.7 million) will have increased, with Barcelona preparing to make a bid.

Morocco coach Walid Regragui said it was inevitable the world was taking note of his players but transfer talk was premature with the team still in the tournament.

“You have some players at small clubs - I don’t like using that term - so this is a good event to show their quality,” he said. “Everybody’s focused for the World Cup. They want to make history, then afterwards their agents can do business.” REUTERS

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