Despite his diminutive figure, M'bark Boussoufa has a way of making his presence felt. And how does he do it - doing his talk on the pitch. The 34-year old has been one of the best performers for Morocco at the Total Africa Cup of Nations Egypt 2019, and was named Total Man of the Match in two games at the group stage (against Namibia and South Africa).
Like fine wine, Boussoufa gets better with age and continues to play a key role for the Atlas Lions in their quest to land the Holy Grail of African football for the first time since 1976.
The Al-Shabab midfielder played a key role in sending Morocco to the last-16, where they face Benin on Friday at the Al Salam Stadium in Cairo. The Atlas Lions picked the maximum nine points at the group stage and are yet to concede, making them key contenders for the ultimate.
A product of the famous Ajax Academy, Boussoufa was born in Amsterdam and hit the limelight at the age of 16. His talent earned him a move to English side, Chelsea in 2001, before opening his professional account at Belgian side, KAA Gent, where he played for two years 2005 and 2006. The well-traveled midfielder will later join Anderlecht, winning two league titles amongst others.
He later swapped Belgium for Russia, where he put pen to paper on a three-year contract with Anzhi Makhachkala in 2011, before crossing to Lokomotiv Moscow in 2013.
Boussoufa made an emotional return to KAA Gent in 2015/2016, but after one year he decided to taste the Middle East football and he was snapped up by the UAE-based club Al Jazira the following year. The Moroccan veteran then jumped to Al Shabab Club of Saudi Arabia, his current club.
Eligible to play for Netherlands, Boussoufa opted for Morocco and has been key for the Atlas Lions since making his debut in 2006. Thirteen years down the lane, and he has not regretted the decision to don thew famous red shirt of Morocco with the participation at the FIFA World Cup Russia 2018 ranking the highlight.
Morocco coach Herve Renard banks heavily on Boussoufa, who offers the perfect tone for his blend of youth and experience. The Atlas Lions are favourites against Benin, first timers at the knockout stage; but Boussoufa has poured cold water and expects a tough battle against the West Africans.
With the ability to decide a game, Boussoufa is however counting on a united effort from every member of the Atlas Lions squad to roar past the Les Ecureuils into the last eight where they will face either Senegal or Uganda.
"It doesn't matter who is the best player in a team or scores the goals. Qualification is all that matters. It's not just one man playing. Mental preparation is key. This isn't the group stage anymore," Boussoufa told the media.
The Atlas Lions' campaign at the last edition ended at the quarters, losing to Egypt, and Boussoufa who is participating in his third AFCON (2012, 2017, 2019) insist they will have to beat Benin first and other things will follow.