Bounou: Al Hilal's roaring Atlas Lion on hunt for AFCON glory

Moroccan shot stopper Yassine Bounou, more commonly known as Bono, has achieved a lot during his career, but he stands on the verge of what would be arguably his greatest feat.

Morocco, who the world fell in love with during their fairytale run to the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar in late 2022, haven’t won the Africa Cup of Nations since 1976. It seems scarcely believable for a nation that has produced so many world-class talents.

But, after coming through the group stage of the Africa Cup of Nations Cote d’Ivoire 2023 unscathed, with two wins and a draw, the Atlas Lions are now considered one of the favourites to go all the way and win the competition.

Breaking the country’s 48-year title drought will continue what has been a remarkable 14 months for club and country for Bono, which started with that unforgettable - and historic - journey to the World Cup’s final four.

No African or Arab side had ever made it that far in the 92-year history of football’s showpiece event, but backed by a vocal and vociferous supporter base in Qatar, Morocco dared to dream. And Bono was pivotal to their success.

Keeping two clean sheets in the group stage, against Croatia and Belgium, it was in the Round of 16 penalty shootout victory over Spain that his star soared to new heights.

Bono’s twin saves from the spot-kicks of Carlos Soler and Sergio Busquets will go down in Moroccan football folklore.

Al Dawsari scores against Al Ettifaq

“We felt the support of our fans in Morocco and elsewhere, and that gave us momentum in the stadium,” Bono said after that famous win.

"On behalf of all the players…I offer this gift to all the Moroccan people."

Proving his shootout heroics were no fluke, Bono was at it again for Sevilla in the Europa League final in May.

With the match against Italian giants AS Roma finishing 1-1 after extra time, Bono stood tall in the shootout once again, saving Gianluca Mancini’s effort. Thus, the Spanish side went on to claim a record seventh Europa League title.

It was form that attracted interest from Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, but in the end Bono decided in the summer that his future lay in the Roshn Saudi League with Al Hilal. The Riyadh side snared the goalkeeper as one of their prized off-season signings.

“I am lucky today to be in a club like Al-Hilal, where I am happy and for which, above all, I was the main option,” he told Foot Mercato in a recent interview.

“For now, my goal is to succeed with Al-Hilal. I want to try to win everything, mark an era and leave a mark on this championship, on this continent.”

To date, Bono is well on track to achieve just that. Al Hilal sit currently seven points clear at the top of the RSL table after 19 rounds and have broken records for their performance through the first half of the season, including most points accrued. 

Meanwhile, they are also safely through to the knockout rounds of the AFC Champions League, as last year’s runners-up look to add a record fifth continental title to their collection.

Bono’s form in goal has more than backed up why Al Hilal made him a priority signing. Through the first 19 games, he had made 41 saves. More impressively, however, is his record of 12 clean sheets from 17 starts, which puts him on track to break the RSL clean sheets record (19) set last season by Al Ittihad’s Marcelo Grohe.

Grohe’s reliability was pivotal in the Jeddah club lifting the 2022-23 top-flight trophy.

Bono’s efforts have already seen him pick up back-to-back Goalkeeper of the Month awards in the RSL, in October and November, while he was also named African Goalkeeper of the Year for 2023.

While the individual accolades will give him a sense of personal pride and satisfaction, the ultimate glory that he most covets is team success.

Delivering that for his country will be his sole focus over the coming weeks, starting with a huge Round of 16 clash with South Africa on Tuesday.

Should Morocco progress, a quarter-final against giant-killing Cape Verde or Mauritania awaits.

In the form that both he and his teammates are in, which includes Al Shabab’s Romain Saiss and Al Wehda’s Munir Mohamedi, there is a growing confidence that this will be the year Morocco finally break their AFCON title drought. 

Bono, as he has done for Al Hilal and his national team, will undoubtedly have a large hand to play in any success.