22 December 2012

Africa: We Can Move Mountains

Sofiane Feghouli started his professional footballing career as a 17-year-old, when he first played for Grenoble in France's Ligue 2. Described as the next Zinedine Zidane, Feghouli helped the club gain promotion in his second season and then - although still a teenager - he became a regular. Two serious injuries held him back temporarily, but he showed enough that La Liga club Valencia were determined to sign him, and although he struggled to break into the first team after his 2010 move, he has since become a regular.

In the last two seasons, the 22-year-old has caught the eyes of many scouts around Europe, with his potential fully on display in this term's UEFA Champions League, where he played in all six group matches and scored three goals in the process. Not surprisingly, his impressive performances in Spain and Europe have drawn transfer rumours from some of the continent's biggest clubs, and he was also targeted by Algeria, who invited him to play for the Desert Foxes. Although he had already represented France at junior level, he decided to follow the call and first played for the African side in February this year in a 2-1 win against Gambia.

"I was quite tense before my first steps with the national team. Coach Vahid Halilhodzic's first speech put the pressure on me. I knew I could not disappoint. And at the moment, everything is going well. I even scored in my first game. You cannot ask for more," he admitted recently.

Feghouli says that he has been particularly impressed with the tremendous support that the Algerians enjoy whenever they play. "The atmosphere in Algeria, for those who do not know, is amazing. It's almost a World Cup final when results are there. Fans are always there to support the team. It is fantastic. The stadium is already full at noon, hours before the kick-off. Playing in front of so many people is an amazing experience, especially when you are a young player taking your first steps in the team. It is chilling. Once the referee whistles, it seems that the crowd pushes you, it gives you an incredible strength," he said.

A very tough group:

Incredible strength is probably something that Feghouli and his team-mates will need if they want to escape the group stages at January's CAF Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa. Drawn into Group D, the Desert Foxes will have to overcome stiff opposition from tournament favourites Côte d'Ivoire, Togo and local rivals Tunisia. The youngster knows that the 2010 FIFA World Cupâ„¢ finalists will have their work cut out for them if they want to reach the quarter-finals. "It is a tough group with very experienced nations. We know Côte d'Ivoire very well, so no need to be told a lot about them, but we beat them a few years ago [at the 2010 AFCON]. It will be difficult but we will play our football. Tunisia, with its local players, especially those from Esperance Tunis are a benchmark on the continental level. It will be a North African derby, which is always special. And Togo has a spirit of revenge after the tragedy of Cabinda."

However, the player is optimistic that the Fennecs can rely on the promise of youth. "We have a young team. It will be my first AFCON, and my ambition is to go as far as possible. With such a team-spirit we showed during the qualifiers, we can do great things. We have been consistent lately. With effort, we can move mountains, but we must go step by step. Many of our players will be in their first competition for their country, so each game will bring us experience. We want the national jersey to shine during the coming tournament. We do not want to miss this great event, so we must be ambitious and well prepared above all. Our goal is to make it to the last eight."

He reveals that is his own best motivator. "I set myself very high goals. I am very ambitious. I want to succeed and for that, I work a lot. I am satisfied with my performances for now, but I still can do more." Part of this growth has been his shift to playing out wide. "At the start of my career, I was a 'supporting striker' trying to make assists. Playing on the wing has helped me improve physically. I gained in speed and power. It is very positive for my career evolution."

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