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An afterthought that came back roaring: Boufal delivers magical performance at Qatar 2022

It was October 2017 and Sofiane Boufal was still getting to grips with his life at Southampton. He was the club’s record signing one year earlier, with the Saints paying €20 million for the Morocco winger, but he had failed to make an early impact. But ask any Southampton fan and he will remember Boufal’s goal against West Bromwich Albion.

Boufal recovered the ball in his own half, some 30 yards of his goal. He took it, turned on the afterburners, made two WBA defenders trip each other and comically fall, dribbled past other three opponents and finally scored with a finesse shot, in a Maradonesque manner that earned plenty of plaudits.

Boufal’s amazing run was named “the goal of the decade” for Southampton and it only adds fuel to the fire. Why did Boufal fail at the Saints? How could he fail on a team that provides plenty of chances for young players? What did go wrong? And how can he be so good, a huge piece of Morocco’s puzzle at Qatar 2022, where the “Atlas Lions” became the first African team ever to reach the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup?

The answer might come from his background and the way he responds to challenges. Born in Paris, the pacy winger, which provided one of the highlights of Qatar 2022 when he dribbled and jinked past Spanish right back Marcos Llorente with a body feint, had always felt responsible for his family.

“My mother would wake up every day at 6 AM to go to work and provide to the family. I had to work for her, for our family. I had to become a professional football player and deliver something to the persons who helped me so much,” said Boufal after Morocco’s win against Portugal, 1-0, in the quarter-finals at Qatar 2022.

His short dance with his mum, who went on the pitch after the game, was filmed and became viral on social media. It was a sheer joyous moment to watch, with the two exuding happiness and delivering a moment for the ages, both for Morocco fans and for themselves.

But his time at Southampton was surely left best forgotten, especially as Boufal, who scored only eight times in 84 appearances in the Premier League club, also missed Morocco’s side at the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

It lit a fire inside him that was impossible to stop. “It was a slap in the face. I gave them the stick with which I was beaten, and I swore to myself that it wouldn’t happen again,” said Boufal back then.

Changes were needed. In 2020, he went back to France, where it all began, and tried to clean up his act. He did not choose a star-studded side, rather than go back to the basics at Angers, a team in the middle of the pack in Ligue 1.

“I think he was in a good place with a good mentality and had more maturity. He has changed a lot and I hope he can now find more possibilities for the future and it would be great to see him at a high level because he has the qualities and attributes to play there. He is a better player now than when he was at Southampton,” said Claude Puel, his former manager at Southampton, for “The Athletic”.

Indeed, Boufal scored 12 goals in 55 matches in the past two seasons for Angers, becoming a key player for the side. That also meant that he regained his place in Morocco’s side, where he looked excellent at the 2022 FIFA World Cup, becoming a key player in the cog of Walid Regragui’s side.

Yet disaster nearly happened three months before the competition, as Boufal got injured. It made for an anxious wait, but the surgery was a success and he came back roaring, properly motivated to prove his doubters wrong.

A social media video of him did the rounds in the past days, as his confidence was unparalleled.

“You’re going to think I’m crazy. But if we get past group stage, we’re going to the quarter-finals, we’ll be the surprise. We’ll do what Ghana did in 2010,” said Boufal.

He had one thing wrong, though. Ghana did not qualify to the semi-finals and Morocco became the first-ever African team in 49 tries to secure qualification between the top four teams at any edition of the FIFA World Cup.

And Boufal was a crucial part of that, writing history on his team’s and nation’s behalf. And, of course, for his family, for his mother, and for his late father, who passed away in 2019.

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