“Bessam dribbles past one, two, three, four players, bursts into the box, lobs the keeper… and it’s there!” Descriptions like that are no doubt familiar to Arabic-speaking fans of Captain Tsubasa, the hugely popular Japanese manga series of the 1990s.
They can just as easily be applied to Mauritania star Moulaye Ahmed Khalil, who happens to go by the nickname of Bessam, in honour of the Arabic name of Kojiro Hyuga, the eternal rival of Captain Tsubasa star Tsubasa Oozora.
Taking up the story behind his nickname, the happy-go-lucky forward told FIFA.com: “I used to follow Captain Tsubasa when I was young and my friends started calling me Bessam because I loved the character so much and tried to copy everything he did, even to the extent of rolling up my shirt sleeves.
“I never thought that one day I’d turn professional because football was just a way of passing the time for me.”
Bessam’s comic-strip near-namesake would no doubt have been proud to have conjured up the kind of dribble the Mauritanian magician produced against the South Africans. Picking up possession wide on the left, right on the halfway line, he cut in and slalomed his way past four Bafana Bafana defenders before dinking the ball over the keeper to seal victory for his side and send the home fans wild.
Recalling his memorable solo effort, Bessam said: “I’m so proud of it and I can’t even tell you how it feels. You need to have a lot of self-confidence to score a goal like that. It was a tight game, we were only leading 2-1, and I felt I could get the goal that would seal the win for us.”
Defying the odds
That victory was Les Mourabitones’ first in Group M of the Africa Cup of Nations qualifying competition and took them into second place in a section that also contains Cameroon and Gambia. On top of all that, the win moved the North Africans up to 89th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, their highest position since 1996.
They kept the good times rolling by beating South Sudan 5-1 on aggregate in the first round of the African qualifiers for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, with again Bessam playing his part by opening the scoring in their 4-0 win in the second leg in Nouakchott.
Next up for the high-flying Mourabitones comes a second-round tie against continental heavyweights Tunisia, the first leg of which takes place in the Mauritanian capital on Friday. Looking ahead to what promises to be a tough assignment against the Eagles of Carthage, Bessam said: “It was important to get a good result against South Sudan and we were determined to win. It was a handsome victory for us and it’s boosted our confidence for the next match against Tunisia, which we need to really prepare for.”
He added: “The record books will tell you that Tunisia are favourites (Mauritania are without a win in the six previous meetings between the sides) but it all comes down to what happens on the pitch. We’ll be aiming for a good result in Nouakchott and then try to follow it up in Tunisia.”
Though they face a tall order, Corentin Martins’ side are determined to upset the odds again, with Bessam confident they can back up their recent Africa Cup of Nations qualifying performances against Cameroon (a narrow 1-0 defeat in Yaounde) and South Africa with another strong showing against the Tunisians.
“Beating South Africa gave us a lift ahead of the World Cup qualifiers, which are so important and where we’re up against some more big teams. I hope we can kick on and beat Tunisia and reach the next round.”
Namechecking his comic-book heroes, Bessam signed off by saying: “Captain Majid (Captain Tsubasa’s Arabic name) and Bassam both fulfilled their dreams of playing in the World Cup. I just hope I can do the same one day.”