*With four different tournaments kicking off this summer (the Women’s World Cup, the Copa América, the Gold Cup, and the African Cup of Nations), Between the Sticks will preview one goalkeeper to watch from each tournament. The other previews can be accessed by clicking on the embedded hyperlinks.*
With his national team career on the line, Mouez Hassen has a lot to prove going into the 2019 African Cup of Nations.
“If he plays, it’s a big chance for him to cement his spot [with the Tunisian national team],” said Lotfi Wada, an African football writer.
Roughly one year ago, the 24-year-old goalkeeper was suiting up in his first career World Cup match. Hassen had only made his national team debut three months earlier, and he was coming off of a solid loan with Ligue 2 club Châteauroux. He was holding England to just a single goal in Tunisia’s World Cup opener, largely due to some fantastic pieces of goalkeeping.
Then, in the 12th minute, the injury bug bit.
“He had a nasty injury at the 2018 World Cup,” Lotfi said. “He injured his shoulder against England.”
Replays weren’t clear as to what triggered Hassen’s shoulder injury, although it was likely due to a collision he had with England’s Jesse Lingard earlier in the match. Whatever the reason, Hassen went down holding his left shoulder, and he was forced to exit the game and ultimately the tournament.
“The injury can’t be overlooked,” Lotfi said. “It’s very complicated because he took more time than expected to recover well from this injury.”
Hassen has since lost his starting place with the Tunisian national team. He didn’t fully recover from the injury until October 15, 2018, and he’s only made one international start since then. Although he was selected to Tunisia’s 2019 AFCON roster, it’s clear he’s not the same goalkeeper he was one year ago.
“Maybe he has this fear of getting injured [again],” Lotfi said.
This has drawn the ire of Tunisian football fans, some of whom weren’t fans of Hassen to begin with.
“He came like a mercenary to play in the World Cup, and since then, he hasn’t been able to be called up much for physical reasons,” Lotfi said.
Hassen was born in Fréjus, France, in 1995. He spent most of his football career in France, including with various French club academies. Between 2011 and 2015, he represented France’s numerous national youth teams; every level from the U-16s to the U-21s. Despite this, Tunisia attempted to call him up a few years after he graduated from the U-21 French team, hoping to lure what was then a talented young goalkeeper to their roster. But Hassen said no, opting instead to wait for an opportunity with France.
Fast forward to 2018 and Hassen still hadn’t been called up to France’s senior team, let alone been cap-tied to them. Seeing that Tunisia qualified to that year’s World Cup though, Hassen had a change of heart.
“Seeing the 2018 World Cup coming, he decided to agree to a call-up,” Lotfi said. “He made his [Tunisia national team] debut in March 2018, weeks before the start of World Cup preparations and the World Cup itself.
Although Tunisia finally had their man, this was a decision not welcomed by every fan. Hassen was criticized for only joining the national team for the chance to play in the World Cup, and his actual dedication to Tunisia’s causes was seriously questioned. This led to Hassen appearing on national television in an attempt to dispel these accusations.
“He explained his choice on national television,” Lotfi said. “He said the usual waffling; that he wasn’t ready, that he was always ready to play for Tunisia but that he wasn’t ready [at that time], et cetera.”
It’s not that he’s not a good enough goalkeeper for the Carthage Eagles, because he is. But the fact that he joined the team not long before the World Cup made some supporters feel that the team’s other goalkeepers were left hard done.
“Logically and God willing, we want an excellent [national team] ‘keeper for the next 10 years,” Lotfi said. “But in a certain way, he stole the work of goalkeepers who were to play.”
Lotfi believes that new players should join national teams after the World Cup, not before it. He argues that players like Hassen, who join a national team after ignoring call-ups during qualifiers, take these opportunities away from other footballers who are more deserving of experiencing these moments.
“These types of players, if they should join the national team, they have to do it after the World Cup,” Lotfi said. “They’re stealing the jobs of players who put their blood and everything [into qualifying], and who worked for three years [in the CAF qualification process].”
Still, Lotfi is happy to have a ‘keeper of Hassen’s quality representing Tunisia.
“He should be our national team ‘keeper for the next 10 or 12 years, in terms of pure talent,” Lotfi said.
When it comes to his skills, Mouez Hassen has been described as a modern African goalkeeper due to his ability in the air. He’s comfortable with both catching and punching high balls, and he’s able to make his aerial presence known thanks to his strong, high jumps.
“I’d say that he’s a very modern ‘keeper because he’s very good in the air,” Lotfi said.
His ability to attack high balls has set him apart from other African goalkeepers, most of whom struggle dealing with crosses and airborne deliveries.
“He has a very different style compared to most other African goalkeepers,” Lotfi said. “It’s a surprise for me because, on the African scene, I’m not used to seeing this type of agile goalkeeper.”
Hassen’s body type comes into play here. At 6 ft 1, Hassen isn’t the tallest goalkeeper around. But his body weight of 74 kg puts him on the lighter end of the spectrum for African goalkeepers. It’s also reflective of the newer and fitter African goalkeeper.
“Just recently, you have African goalkeepers who are tall and physically impressive,” Lotfi said. “Compared to the past when you had smaller, stouter goalkeepers. For instance, you had Carlos Kameni of Cameroon, Essam El Hadary [of Egypt], and Vincent Enyeama [of Nigeria].”
Height-wise, not much separates Hassen from Kameni, El Hadary, and Enyeama. El Hadary (6ft 3) is two inches taller than Hassen, Kameni (6 ft 1) is about the same height as Hassen, and Enyeama (5 ft 11) is just two inches shorter than Hassen.
The difference lies in their weight. As mentioned earlier, Hassen weighs in at around 74 kg, which makes him one of the lightest goalkeepers in African football. Kameni (86 kg), El Hadary (85 kg), and Enyeama (87 kg)—all legends of African goalkeeping—weigh in comfortably over the 80 kg mark.
This difference in mass can also be seen when Hassen is compared to other active African goalkeepers. Cameroon’s André Onana clocks in at 82 kg, Morocco’s Yassine Bounou weighs around 78 kg, and Egypt’s Mohamed El Shenawy weighs about 84 kg. Even Hassen’s Tunisian teammates, Farouk Ben Mustapha and Moez Ben Cherifia, weigh 83 kg and 80 kg, respectively. When compared to both past and present African goalkeepers, Hassen’s weight is on the lighter side.
But why does this matter? Well, it has to do with a goalkeeper’s vertical jump. Along with lean muscle, a person’s weight is the biggest contributor to how high said person can jump. As Joseph Eitel puts it in his post for azcentral.com, “imagine putting on a 20-pound weighted vest and trying to jump straight up; it’s unlikely you can jump as high as without the vest.” For goalkeepers, less weight means they can jump higher, and so they can challenge for crosses and high balls more effectively.
Bringing this back to Hassen, this is a significant factor behind why he’s one of the best, most agile African goalkeepers in terms of aerial challenges. He is significantly lighter than most fellow African goalkeepers, and that gives him a leg up on his opponents (literally and figuratively).
“He’s a prototype of those new ‘keepers, and even in Tunisia, I would say that we don’t have these type of ‘keepers.” Lotfi said. “Mouez Hassen is physically more impressive than the usual ‘keepers we have in Tunisia.”
Interestingly, while Hassen’s aerial prowess can be described as befitting the modern generation of goalkeepers, his footwork is anything but.
“I would say that he has problems with his footwork,” Lotfi said. “From what I saw of him with the Tunisian national team, he’s not technically very sound or very safe. So I would say that this is his weak point.”
More damningly, Hassen has seen very limited playing minutes in the past year, and that has raised questions about his current fitness and his future at the club level.
“Honestly, I don’t know what will be his future,” Lotfi said. “Even though he has good qualities, he hasn’t played serious football in almost a year.”
Following his World Cup injury, Hassen returned to Nice in France’s Ligue 1. As mentioned earlier, his injury kept him out until October 15, 2018; a total of 119 days. Unfortunately for Hassen, by the time he fully recovered, he had no place left with the senior team, and so he was demoted to Nice’s reserve squad for a period of time.
With Hassen’s contract expiring later this month, it’s unlikely Nice will resign him.
“The future is a bit cloudy,” Lotfi said. “Not in the sense that he doesn’t have the qualities, because he does. But we don’t know where he’ll play next year.”
This situation has impacted Hassen’s role with the Tunisian national team. Although he entered the 2018 World Cup as the squad’s starting goalkeeper, his lack of regular club minutes, coupled with Farouk Ben Mustapha’s excellent play with Al-Shabab FC, has seen Hassen fall out of favour from the starting XI.
“I fancy him, but I don’t even know if he’ll start [in the African Cup of Nations] because of his lack of playing time,” Lotfi said. “It’s a very complicated situation.”
Hassen did see some action with the Carthage Eagles in 2019. He played the second half of Tunisia’s 2-0 win over Iraq on June 7, and he featured in the full 90 minutes of Tunisia’s 2-1 win over Croatia on June 11. But when Tunisia opened their 2019 AFCON campaign against Angola on June 24, Hassen was on the bench.
“Logically, one of Farouk Ben Mustapha or Moez Ben Cherifia should start [due to fitness],” Lotfi said. “And Mouez Hassen should be the second choice ‘keeper because he hasn’t played.”
It’s not impossible for Mouez Hassen to feature, though. With respect to Farouk Ben Mustapha and Moez Ben Cherifia, Hassen is the trio’s most talented goalkeeper.
“He showed that he’s a quality ‘keeper,” Lotfi said. “And when you have the talent and the quality, you’ll still have it even if you’re not 100% fit.”
The pressure will be on if he does feature, though. Tunisia may not be one of the strong favourites for the championship, but expectations of the squad are high nonetheless. A semi-final appearance would be a welcomed achievement for a side that has failed to reach that stage in each of their last seven AFCONs. At the bare minimum though, Tunisia are expected to qualify out of the group stage.
“It’s as simple as 2+2=4,” Lotfi said. “Getting out of the group stage is definitely an expectation. If the contrary happens, it will be a great shame, with all of my due respect to the sister countries [in our group].”
Tunisia, who are placed in Group E, will play Angola, Mali, and Mauritania in the group stage. They’ve already played Angola to a 1-1 draw, but they’re still expected to qualify nonetheless.
“The goal is clear; get out of the group,” Lotfi said. “Either in first place, second place, or God protect us, as the third worst team in the group.”
After that, depending on where they finish, Tunisia could potentially play a round of 16 match against either of Morocco, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, or Ghana; all former AFCON champions.
“The real problems will start if the [Tunisian] national team qualifies out of the group,” Lofti said.
Ultimately, a potential appearance at AFCON isn’t just an extra cap to Hassen’s name; it’s also a chance for Hassen to redeem himself with Tunisian fans and grab a strong hold of Tunisia’s number one goalkeeper spot.
“If he leads and makes some really important saves, I think many [fans] will forgive him for his attitude,” Lotfi said.
Special thanks to Lotfi Wada for his analysis. He is an African football fan and writer who is currently based in France. He started writing professionally about African football in 2012. You can find him on Twitter through @LotfiWada.