Video The assistant referee changed my life. It’s not the most likely title, but in the case of Yassine “Bono” Bounou, it’s true. “Everyone is talking about him now,” says Julen Lopetegui. Two years ago, Wolves and the former Sevilla manager know, many were talking about him too, but not for the right reason. Luckily, every now and then the VAR does something that suggests it’s not completely awful, and this was one of those times. That night, he saved the man who ended up saving Morocco, on his way to making World Cup history.
It was in February 2020, the knockout stages of the Europa League. With a minute remaining against Cluj, a fairly docile shot slipped under Bono’s body and into the net. Sevilla was absent and, in all likelihood, so was he. On loan from Girona, Bono replaced Tomas Vaclik. He had played just 45 minutes in the league and two Copa del Rey games against fourth-tier opponents. The Europa League was his competition and, amid whistles and tension, that was gone. Him too: this purchase option would not be exercised now.
But then the replays detected a handball in the build-up, the goal was ruled out and Sevilla got the away goals. At the end of the season, they had won the competition and Bono remained. He was also a hero – if not as much as he has since become. “It seems strange to imagine him, but his growth owes something to VAR, but above all to him,” said Sevilla goalkeeping coach Jose Luis Silva.
Things were about to change. Within ten days of the match against Cluj, the pandemic closed stadiums, putting football on hold. Vaclik injured himself; Bono had opportunities, and under conditions that allowed his recovery to be complete. When they returned, the matches were played behind closed doors. Sevilla moved to Cologne for fixtures with Wolves, Roma, Manchester United and Inter Milan. Against Wolves, Bono saved a penalty from Raúl Jiménez and made a handful of superb saves against United. In the final, Romelu Lukaku was the man denied by a stunning stoppage.
Bono had a winner’s medal, a contract and a starter spot. It wasn’t enough to make saves, he also scored. A new era was beginning, his talent was beginning to tell. Last season, he won the Zamora award for La Liga’s best goalkeeper after conceding less than anyone else. It’s been eight hours and a penalty shootout without an opponent beating him in Qatar – the only goal conceded was an own goal against Canada, the country where Bono was born and which he disallowed at international level. An exceptional late save prevented João Félix from equalizing for Portugal and he also starved Cristiano Ronaldo in injury time. Morocco became the first African team to qualify for the semi-finals.
Not that you would know after seeing how ridiculously calm Bono remained. Silva cracks. “Honestly, me and Marko [Dimitrovic, Sevilla’s second keeper] I tried to be like him and it’s impossible,” he says. “It’s amazing how calm he is: we talk about it, we laugh about it. His calm is worthy of study. He never seems worried, and that’s an important tool. It’s not relaxation because when it comes to competition he has the tension he needs.
He’s always been like that. Born in Montreal, Bono is the son of a university physics professor, and speaks five languages including Spanish with a slight Argentinian accent: he is an Argentina fan who sent his jersey to Ariel Ortega after the game against Spain and named his dog after the striker. – which will be awkward if they meet in the final. Lopetegui describes him as having a “privileged mind”. Talk to teammates at Atlético Madrid, his first club in Spain having left Casablanca, and they’ll tell you the same.
There he often trained with the first team – the year Atlético won the league – and played with the B team. calm is the word, says Isaac Nana. Sergio Cidoncha says: “Very polite, silent, so much so that he almost went unnoticed. An introvert – and a brilliant goalkeeper.
This tranquility perhaps hid the tension of those first months in Seville. There was a time, says former Sevilla goalkeeper Andrés Palop, shortly after arriving at the club from Girona, where he didn’t seem to have much confidence. “I think he has grown a lot psychologically; and when he had to replace Vaclik, an undisputed starter, doing so during the pandemic helped him not have too much pressure at a club where there is always pressure. He has become very strong in this sense.
Silva agrees: “That moment had affected him, like any goalkeeper. He took a step forward during the pandemic. There are no fans, we are in Cologne, and his development in is helped. He hadn’t had the opportunities he really needed before, to show his qualities.
These qualities are numerous. Palop delivers a detailed technical analysis of a goalkeeper he describes as “very complete” and “among the 10 best in the world”: fast, with considerable reach and an advanced starting position, reading the game, courageous in the air , excellent -on-one, good off his feet to escape the press and initiate play.
“When he came, he was a very good responsive goalkeeper: despite his size and size, he was quick, had good reflexes,” says Silva. “Girona coaches said he was fantastic with his feet. What has evolved is his ability to understand the game. He is adaptable, his understanding and behavior are perfect. He has worked here with [Jorge] Sampaoli and Lopetegui, who attach great importance to this understanding: looking for the free man, choosing the right areas. Even in dangerous situations, he is good. You will see him dribbling or even playing roulette.
It happened against Spain. Penalties too. Afterwards, Bono said he knew Pablo Sarabia, who took the first one, but he hadn’t really studied them. It was, he suggested, more intuitive, a lot of luck involved.
And yet it was the man who saved a penalty from Erling Haaland, who became the first goalkeeper to save one from specialist Mikel Oyarzabal; turned down Nabil Fekir in a Seville derby; and against Spain prevented a kick from Carlos Soler, who has already scored a hat-trick against Real Madrid and Thibaut Courtois. Silva doesn’t believe it either: “Well, he said that,” the goalkeeping coach says, suggesting there’s more work and less chance than Bono wants to suggest. And that also says something.
“He never had arrogance and never will,” insists Silva. “Bono has values that are hard to find in football. He spent most of the year not playing and I never heard a bad word, a gesture. He always helped Tomas. I think that’s the best substitute keeper I’ve ever coached. He always knew his moment had to come, and now it has. In life, you always get something in return and he did it.