By Benjamin Peacock
“He’s the fourth best keeper in the league, at best,” they said when Rangers goalkeeper Walid Birrou won the 2018 Heartland Conference Golden Glove. It was not like he had anything to prove to the critics, but he did so in a tremendously strong way minding the net in his first National Premier Soccer League season last year. In fact, for six straight matches he defied every shot taken. He outlasted his opposite for conference rival FC Wichita on penalty kicks that gave the Stags the Heartland Conference championship. He was also named to the Heartland Conference Starting XI. (And oh by the way, he shut down the team again that called him fourth best.)
But before all that, Walid was an eight year old centerback in Gandia, Spain. If you play soccer in Spain, that is really your entire focus. Walid was on the roster for Ciudad Ducal until he was 19 years old. His interest in goalkeeping started around 10 and by the time he was on the U12 team, he was in the net full time.
In the college-age years, Walid played for a fifth division team called Fuensport, which is right under semi-pro level. He got in about a half season that first year and then his second on the team, they were promoted to fourth division, finishing runner up in the championship. From there, he moved over to CD Teruel U23, which is second from professional level, but this was a difficult transition because the team was three hours away.
“We were a very young team in a very old league, where the average age was nearly 30 years old,” he added. He also noted he got to play in a home stadium that had the capacity for 8-9,000 people. Quite the experience.
Then a recruiting firm came calling and Walid was offered a scholarship to Oakland City University in Indiana, a Division II school. In his first game with Oakland City, the team lost but it was in the second extra time and their opponent was a Division I school. Walid would earn All Region First Team honors and played in a championship game for NCCAA.
Walid graduated from Oakland City with a Bachelor of Arts in Education and has some time to remain in the states for an additional year by working in an area of his degree. His plan is to teach at the elementary level. Right now, Walid is working for the firm that recruited him, Athletes USA, as an online recruiter. He’s an avid gym goer, plays a little FIFA on the PS4, loves movies, and is a self-proclaimed Instagram junkie.
One thing he is not, though, is an early riser. “I don’t wake up very early, usually a little before practice at 10 am,” he said. “And I don’t like to eat before practice.”
When he returns, he’ll typically consume some eggs, turkey breast, and an avocado before heading off to the gym. Which out of season, he’ll do five or six days a week, but in-season more like three or four. He helps with the Rangers’ youth soccer academy and also does some individual soccer tutoring. Evenings are his time to chill. Game days are not going to be much different for him. He wants to maintain the same regimen around the match.
“If you try to behave different, the goal is to be the most comfortable as possible,” he explained. He will talk to his mom in Spain before every match; sometimes his brother.
Relationships are an integral part of Walid’s makeup. From the coach who taught him as he started focusing on goalkeeping, to other teachers and coaches in his eclectic soccer journey, it is important to him to have a close relationship and absorb as much as possible.
“If you ask any of them, they’ll tell you I ask a lot. I like to know how they got where they are and what they’ve been through,” Walid said of the influential people in his life.
As to aspirational soccer figures, he has had a few. In his early days, he wanted to imitate the likes of Victor Valdes of Barcelona, where Walid was born. In high school, he found courage in Tim Howard’s story fighting Tourette’s while playing such a very mentally driven position as goalkeeper. He also mentioned drawing inspiration from Connor McGregor, a UFC fighter who despite living in poverty managed to keep doing what he loved and believed in himself.
After his first year at Oakland City came to an end, Walid wanted to continue playing in the summer and had an appointment during spring break to practice with Accrington Stanley, a League 2 team in England. Through association from his college coach to Rangers Coach Will Montgomery, he got a call on his way to the airport inviting him to come to Little Rock to try out.
“I got some info about the city and team. I was impressed with the giant stadium and very good social media presence that made info easy to find,” Walid said of what attracted him. “The team had multiple nationalities, too.”
When he got back from England, he called Coach Montgomery and drove seven hours to take part in the two day tryout. It did not exactly go according to plan.
“My first game in training I let a couple goals in that I should have saved and [Rangers’ Team Director] Ante Jazic told Will I was no good,” a fact they all joke about now. For a couple days he did not hear back, so he called Montgomery and convinced him of his place on the team and his desire to come here over other options he had available.
The 2018 season was certainly memorable. A 7-3 conference record, the aforementioned run of matches where no opponent scored, defeating an undefeated team—Laredo, the #1 ranked team in the nation—in the South Region Semifinal, and a South Region final experience.
“The most special moment was the first game I played because it is difficult to get on a team in the summer,” Walid recalled. “The moment Coach told me I was starting, I felt it was going to be a good season. I was feeling confident. I was ready to go.”
Walid is excited for 2019, particularly the US Open Cup. It is a special opportunity for him to get to play in the historic tournament with his teammates. The prospect of being the underdog drives him. He is going to take it game by game.
“Our goal has to be to win the next game. Not the South Region or the Heartland or the Open Cup. Just win the next game,” he said.
Of course, there is more to Walid than being the best goalkeeper in the NPSL. He speaks five languages! Spanish, French, Arab, English, and Catalonian. He also noted people would be surprised to know how much he actually eats and yet manages to stay as trim as he does.
Here’s some other points of interest gathered in a rapid-fire Q&A.
Who are your favorite professional soccer teams?
I watched Colorado Rapids a little because of Tim Howard. And Barcelona (of course).
All-Time favorite movie?
Harry Potter movies or any action movie with The Rock or Jason Statham.
Where’s your favorite place to eat and hang out in Little Rock?
I like The Fold and I love being at War Memorial. I also like going to the River Market and the mall.
If you had tomorrow off, how would you spend it?
I would go home to Spain. I haven’t been there since August 2017.
What is a superpower you wish you had?
The ability to stop time so I could take a nap.
What is your spirit animal?
Panther. It comes from when I was playing for Ciudad Ducal. My attire was all black and some teammates started to call me Panther. When I moved for college, they started to call me Panterazo, coming from both Panther and Porterazo (which means good goalkeeper).
As a man of international travel, what is the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?
Favorite international food?
I didn’t like Mexican before but I love it now. I also love sushi.
Walid moved Little Rock a couple weeks ago and is settled in with new roommate Donald Benamna, who is also returning this year. With the first pre-season match only two and half weeks away, he is both excited and ready to show fans what the Rangers can do.
“We are going to need fans more than ever,” he said. “It’s going to be a challenging season but exciting because we are now the team that everyone wants to beat. Everyone is coming after us. We had good support last year. We need more. And we know they will be there for us.”
He pledged to make fans proud in everything they do. And no doubt, fans will have many reasons to cheer El Quatro in goal.