By Hari Sethi
INJUSTICE is rife throughout the history of professional football; the best team doesn’t always win, the best players don’t always get what they deserve. Yet whilst injustice initially results in an enveloping sense of despair and anger, it can also act as the most potent of fuels to drive players on.
You only have to look as far as this generation’s self professed ‘Special One’ to see how valuable a commodity such a seemingly devastating sentiment can be. From Madrid to Milan, from Porto to Chelsea, Jose Mourinho has often sought to cultivate a sense of injustice amongst his players, an ‘us vs them’ mentality that has yielded his teams the greatest of prizes.
However, for the man from Setubal, accusations of corruption amongst officials can often be read as a mere tactical decision; a ploy to unite his players, with little foundation in truth. For Algeria fans old enough to remember their country’s first World Cup appearance in 1982, the injustice was very real; the mental scars still ache whenever the story is recounted.
Considering the country’s turbulent past and struggle for independence, it’s easy to assume that simply making it to the World Cup finals was a victory in itself for Algeria. Yet the ‘Desert Foxes’ didn’t arrive in Spain to make up the numbers, they were out to shock the world and that they did.
For their first match at the finals Algeria would face off against an imperious West German team that had won the European Championship just two years earlier. An upset? It wasn’t even contemplated. Media coverage prior to the tie conveyed a German side pumped full of hubris. Press conferences were used to belittle and mock their opponents, with players debating which goal in their inevitable victory to dedicate to their wives and pets.
Their seemingly casual approach to the game showed, with Jupp Derwall’s team bettered all over the pitch. The Algeria side of 82 were a fast, determined and fluid outfit. A tight-knit group composed of friends that had grown up through the hardships of their country’s civil conflicts; they weren’t about to be embarrassed on the world stage.
Attacking West Germany from the start, Algeria took the lead early in the second half courtesy of Rabah Madjer and responded to a Rummenigge equaliser by firing in a second straight from the restart; Lakhdar Belloumi scoring from close range after a nine pass move.
The euphoria that followed such a monumental upset also seemed to drain the players and they tamely lost their second match against an Austrian side that unlike the Germans had clearly done their homework. Nevertheless, Algeria would go again to win their final group game against a resilient Chile. Racing to a 3-0 lead, this Algeria side only knew one way to play and their attacking style almost cost them when the South Americans grabbed two goals back in the second half. The final whistle blew and a total of six points meant they’d be the first African side to reach the second round in the competition’s history; unless West Germany beat Austria by a score line of 1 or 2 -0.
Scoring in the 10th minute West Germany took the lead thanks to Horst Hrubesch, then it happened; or rather, nothing did. Aware of the consequences of such a result, both teams colluded to keep the scoreline that way. There were no more shots. There was no more sprinting. The Europeans had gotten what they wanted and didn’t much care for the lack of spectacle they provided.
‘The Shame of Gijon’ (which the match would late become known as) would later lead to FIFA altering the rules to ensure all teams played their final group game at the same time, but it offered little solace to the country’s fans. Algeria were going home – to this day they remain the only side with two wins to have been eliminated from the group stage. Their date with destiny was put on hold and in the years since their debut heroics, various incarnations of the national team have failed to take the next step. To consign the bittersweet memories of their 82 outing to the past and give those from Algiers to Tamanrasset new heroes to sing of.
Could that be about to change?
Though Algeria haven’t won a game in their two previous World Cup outings, the side that drew 0-0 with England in 2010 and failed to score a single goal in the competition, bears little resemblance to the one now heading to Brazil. Appointed in October 2011, new manager Vahid Halilhodžic arrived to find an ageing team that had managed just 199 passes in their previous home game. A change was needed, not just of personnel but also of identity.
A former striker in his heyday, Halilhodžic is an unashamed fan of fast, offensive football, with media outlets affectionately referring to the meticulous coach as the ‘neurotic Bosnian’. Following an overhaul of the squad’s older players, Halilhodžic has sought to establish his philosophy onto the national side, working with a determined group of youngsters, not hindered by the mental scars of previous campaigns.
Impressionable youngsters willing to buy into a manager’s offensive philosophy – a coach that favours a 4-3-3 and high pressing from his side – sound familiar?
Whilst it’s praiseworthy to harbour such ambitions, it’s far from easy to realize them with success on the national stage. Progress has been a gradual process but the statistics during the Bosnian’s tenure speak for themselves. Prior to his appointment it had taken Algeria nine years to rack up just four away wins, yet in two years under Halilhodžic they’ve been victorious in Gambia, Libya, Benin and Rwanda. And despite enduring a disappointing Cup of Nations performance, Algeria won five out of their six World Cup qualifiers to comfortably secure their place in Brazil.
With ten wins in their last twelve internationals, Algeria will arrive at the world cup in great form, inspired by the talents of Valencia winger Sofiane Feghouli, Inter youngster Saphir Taider and exciting dribbler Yacine Brahimi.
Despite being given the weighty label of ‘the new Zidane’ (a pressure Bruno Cheyrou knows all too well), the winger has continually improved in the last few seasons to establish himself as a key weapon for both club and country. As the North African side primarily attack down the flanks, Feghouli’s performances in Brazil will likely dictate how successful this young Algerian team will be.
Drawn alongside Russia, Belgium and The Republic of Korea Halilhodžic’s determined young side will fancy their chances of ending their country’s hoodoo and escaping Group H. Though with Algeria’s defensive performances in previous outings drawing such scorn in the international media, making a stylistic statement of how they’ve changed is just as important.
The desert foxes head to Brazil keen to bury the ghosts of 82 and with a team fuelled by youthful exuberance and a coach they all believe in, les Fennecs are better prepared than ever to shock the world once more.