By any metric you apply Algeria’s World Cup record is not particularly impressive. The nation’s most successful period was between 1982 and 1990, two decades after the North African country gained full independence from French colonial rule. That ‘success’ was, by most established footballing countries’ standards, modest, but for the Algerian’s qualifying for two successive World Cups and African Cup of Nations victory on home soil in 1990 remains a high water mark in their international footballing history.
Since then Africa’s largest country has endured a footballing journey as arid and joyless as the Sahara desert that makes up much of its southern landmass. Most will recall their appearance during the 2010 World Cup, though not for the best of reasons – Algeria failed to score a single goal and conceded two in a campaign that resulted in a single point earned against England.
Since South Africa Les Fennecs lurched from one disaster to another. The culmination of a series of defeats saw the hiring of Bosnian Vahid Halilhodžić, a journeying manager that deserves no small credit for the rise to prominence of Côte d’Ivoire before he was unceremoniously sacked just four months before the 2010 World Cup.
The positive effect of Halilhodžić’s arrival was not as instantaneous as some had expected. Going into the 2013 CAN there was a genuine feeling that Algeria would do well and potentially win the tournament. Instead they lost to both Tunisia and Togo, essentially ending their tournament, a 2-2 draw with their manager’s former employers would result in their only point. And so with approximately two years since his arrival there was a swell of support in favour of replacing Algeria’s manager.
With the benefit of hindsight it is fortunate that cooler heads within the Fédération Algérienne de Football prevailed and the Bosnian’s contract was kept in one piece. Five group game wins out of six guaranteed a play-off versus Burkina Faso, and despite no small controversy over the two legs Algeria qualified for their 2nd successive World Cup.
In contrast to the previous tournament the mood surrounding Les Fennecs is one of optimism and excitement. While the discipline and organisation that defined their performances four years ago still remain, they have been finessed and, more importantly from a spectators point of view, injected with attacking impetus and a real sense of adventure.
Under Halilhodžić gone was the traditional three-man defence in favour of a more fluid and offensive 4-3-3 formation – though that can change as the situation dictates. Algeria’s three forwards provide their countries’ most exciting and varied aspect. Striker Islam Slimani has had an impressive debut season in Portugal for Sporting CP, eventually dislodging Fredy Montero as first-choice striker and claiming eight goals on his way to winning Algerian footballer of the year.
On respective sides of attack are the duel talents of Dynamo Zagreb’s El Arabi Hillel Soudani who, like Slimani, has enjoyed an impressive debut season in a new country with 19 goals, including three in the Champions League. Sofiane Feghouli, who at 17 was dubbed ‘the new Zidane’ completes the front three in a deeper role, acting as a playmaker as opposed to the wider position he takes for his club Valencia. His link-play between midfield and attack has been one of the most pleasing and crucial aspects of Algeria’s fluent attacking play.
In midfield most readers will be familiar with France-born Nabil Bentaleb who has had a disappointing season with Tottenham Hotspur. For the nation he has chosen to represent he plays an integral part in a trio that while on an individual level are fairly different players, in unison form a mobile, fluent midfield platform on which attacks are built.
So where does that leave Algeria’s chances for progression this summer? If the quotes coming from the manager are anything to go by the mood seems to be one of optimism, perhaps bordering on confidence.
We are confident of our capabilities, our presence in Brazil is a dream we are currently living……I do not rule out the possibility of making a historic achievement for the Algerian football to go to the maximum possible stage in the World Cup
Is the idea of Algeria moving past the group stage for the first time in their history a realistic prospect? One thing to consider is the group they have been drawn in. Group H is probably the weakest of the eight drawn for Brazil 2014. While Belgium are expected to come through as winners – the much-lauded ‘golden generation’ cruised through qualifying, there is a legitimate question as to whether Marc Wilmots’ young stars can manage the pressure and expectation that is being heaped upon them.
Algeria’s two rivals for group runners-up are Russia and South Korea, both squads with World Cup experience and talent, but also a decent amount of pessimism surrounding the countries respective chances.
The closest Algeria have come to escaping a World Cup group was in 1982 where, in an incident so controversial it forced FIFA to change the rules on match schedules, West Germany and Austria conspired to fix the score to secure their own qualification. It is probably the most famous World Cup moment involving Algeria. What is all too often forgotten is that in the opening group game Les Fennecs defeated the reigning world champions 2-1.
Perhaps today in Belo Horizonte Algeria can not only emulate the famous victory of 1982 but also go one better than their lauded predecessors and reach the promised land of the knock-out stages.