29 June 2014

Algeria's Class of 2014 Aim to Add Fairytale World Cup Ending

Photo: Barry Aldworth/Backpagepix
Madjid Bougherra of Algeria celebrates scoring during Africa Cup of Nations 2010.

Algeria's first World Cup in 1982 is never far away from discussion. The historic tale of the underdogs ended sourly, but the generation of 2014 have the chance to add the perfect ending to the tale.

There were scenes of jubilation scattered across Europe when Algeria booked their place in the knockout stages of the World Cup. From Algiers, the capital of the North African nation, fans celebrated with fireworks - as they did in Paris, Marseille, Lyon, and in parts of Germany and Belgium.

Rarely has Europe seen a rapid spread of collective euphoria emanating from a World Cup. But when the Algerian national team takes to the field, this is the norm. This has been a memorable campaign for Algeria, winning their first match since 1982 at the World Cup, becoming the first African team to score four goals in a single match, and reaching the Round of 16 for the first time.

Algeria fans celebrate their Last 16 qualification in Algiers.

The 1982 World Cup in Spain was Algeria's first appearance on to the world stage, having only gained independence from France two decades earlier. The national team hadn't even been around for 20 years before the Desert Foxes had their finest hour, defeating West Germany in the opening match 2-1.

Germany, who had become European champions two years earlier, refused to consider Algeria as serious opposition. It was a breakthrough moment for African football - only four years earlier the continent had picked up its first World Cup win courtesy of Tunisia.

A win latterly against Chile should have sent Algeria through, but the final match between Germany and Austria proved to be a black note in World Cup history. In the "non-aggression pact of Gijon", Germany safely held a 1-0 lead - but the two sides rarely put forth a serious effort on either goal, leading to conspiracy theories abound.

That's the background to Algeria's Round of 16 tie with Germany on Monday. The "Disgrace of Gijon" left a sour taste in the mouths of the North Africans. Remembered for its care-free, attacking brand of football, the 1982 side has acquired legendary status, despite not walking out of the group phase.

The class of 2014

The current crop of Algerian talent, however, is challenging the order of the 1982 side. Above all else, the team is a symbol for the recent wave of dual-nationalism in football. The destabilizing outbreak of civil war in the 1990s misplaced thousands of Algerians, many of whom went to France.

Islam Slimani struck the important goal against Russia.

In 2009, the former president of the Algerian Football Federation, Mohamed Raouraoua, prompted FIFA into changing its eligibility laws. African football has been the major benefactor.

Seventeen of the 23 players called up for the World Cup were born in France, and the new regulations have seen the likes of Nabil Bentaleb of Tottenham Hotspur, Sofiane Feghouli of Valencia and Saphir Taider from Inter Milan find prominence in the Algerian side.

Power, purpose and flexibility

Feghouli - born in the Northern suburbs of Paris - represented France at U18 and U21 level, but the languid attacking-midfielder committed to Algeria in 2011. His movement can be somewhat clunky, but his ball control is like a Velcro-strip - he can weave seamlessly past opponents from the right-side on to his strongest left-foot.

But a constant feature in this Algerian side is flexibility. Feghouli, while never leaving his defensive responsibilities, interchanges fluidly with Yacine Brahimi and Abdelmoumene Djabou. Any gaps that do appear are compensated by the outstanding, dynamic talents of Bentaleb and Taider.

Algeria fans have been out-numbered in Brazil. But not in heart and voice.

Head coach Valid Halilhodzic has a plethora of options in both his selection and how he deploys his starting eleven. After accepting the faults in his defensive approach against Belgium, the Franco-Bosnian coach made five changes - and his was galvanized by some new blood.

South Korea went down 4-2, while Algeria took the necessary point against Russia. It was met by wild celebrations across Southern Europe and North Africa - and it sets up a clash with Germany in Porto Alegre.

Germany's struggles against Ghana will offer some hope for the Algerians, a team blessed with a similar freedom in attack, combined with strength and power.

It shouldn't be long, however, for echoes of 1982 to return. In one sense, the underdog overcoming the Germans and their array of stars; the other, the left-over tension around the "Disgrace of Gijon" which left Algeria with a sour taste in its mouth.

While 1982 is one of different tastes for the Algerians old enough to remember the World Cup in Spain, 2014 has the potential to be the crème de la crème for the North African nation.

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