At the start of 2014, even the most optimistic Algerian football supporters could never have imagined the dream year they were about to enjoy, particularly at the FIFA World Cup™ in Brazil. After having qualified by the skin of their teeth via a play-off versus Burkina Faso, the Algeria surprised the watching world by reaching the knockout phase of the prestigious tournament for the first time in their history.
Les Fennecs’ opening fixture in South America was disappointing, however, as they failed to hang on to a lead against a strong Belgium side, eventually going down 2-1. But while heads may have dropped in less resilient teams, the North Africans dug deep to defeat Korea Republic 4-2 in their second outing, becoming the first African team to score four goals on football’s greatest stage. Their hopes of progressing therefore rested on their third Group H game against Russia, during which a goal from Islam Slimani proved sufficient to earn a point and secure a maiden Round-of-16 qualification for Vahid Halilhodzic’s men.
“We came to Brazil with the objective of getting past the group stage. We managed to do that, and that’s something we can be very proud of, but our ambition doesn’t end there. I want this dream to continue as long as possible,” Slimani told FIFA.com at the time.
That dream would be shattered in the end, but not before the impressive Algerians had taken future world champions Germany to extra time. The Europeans would prevail 2-1, but their African opponents emerged from the clash with their reputations firmly enhanced.
As far as former Algeria coach Rabah Saadane is concerned, this success came down to their experiences at the previous World Cup in South Africa. “That competition enabled them to make better use of their resources. The national team has a lot of potential and is full of talented players. Stability among the coaching staff also played a role,” he said.
After Brazil 2014, the Algerians continued to put in fine displays, and were one of the first two teams – with Cape Verde – to book their ticket for the 2015 CAF Africa Cup of Nations, courtesy of five consecutive victories in a section that contained Mali, Malawi and Ethiopia. They will now likely be regarded as one of the favourites at the continental contest, which kicks off in January.
Brazil 2014 also provided Yacine Brahimi with the opportunity to attract the attention of the globe’s football fans, due in part to the goal he scored during his side’s remarkable victory over Korea Republic in Porto Alegre.
The gifted attacking midfielder’s excellent performances caught the eye of Porto, who purchased him from Grenada a few weeks after Algeria’s World Cup exit.
It has been a productive move for Brahimi, who settled well with the Portuguese giants, notching four goals in the UEFA Champions League group phase that eventually proved crucial in their successful march to the last 16 of Europe’s premier club tournament. On the international scene, his three goals in Cup of Nations qualifiers saw him finish as Algeria’s top scorer of the campaign.
This fine form for club and country did not go unnoticed, and at just 24 years of age, the dynamic playmaker was named African Footballer of the Year for 2014 by both the Liga de Futbol Profesional in Spain and by the BBC. In fact, Brahimi was the first Algerian to win the latter accolade.
“It's a big honour. I owe it to my country and to all the people who voted for me. This trophy is going to give me more strength and more desire to work, to get better, to learn,” he said upon receiving the accolade.
ES Setif gain African crown
The national team’s results also had a positive knock-on effect on ES Setif, Algeria’s sole representatives in the 2014 CAF Champions League. Les Aigles Noirs entered the contest in the preliminary round, before finishing second in a testing Group B that included Al Ahly Benghazi (Libya), CS Sfaxien and Esperance (both Tunisia)
In the semi-finals, Setif knocked out Congolese heavyweights TP Mazembe on away goals. In the final, they disposed of another Congolese outfit, Vita Sport, in the same fashion, after the two-legged showpiece finished 3-3 on aggregate.
The adventure did not end there for Setif, as they became the first Algerian club to appear at the FIFA Club World Cup. Despite unexpectedly losing their opening match 1-0 to Auckland City at Morocco 2014, they salvaged some pride by claiming fifth place, seeing off Asian champions Western Sydney Wanderers on penalties following a 2-2 draw.
Setif forward and ex-international Abdelmalek Ziaya feels that the correlation between Algeria’s fine form and better continental performances by Algerian clubs is clear. “As the national team’s results improve, so does the level of our domestic league. And that has a beneficial impact on the teams taking part in continental competitions, as Setif proved in the Champions League,” he explained.
“The players that compete in the domestic championship are more motivated to earn a national call-up or a move to Europe, due to the greater prestige that Les Fennecs now enjoy,” he continued.
If those players continue to apply themselves in the way described by Ziaya, it is possible that, despite the incredible triumphs already experienced over the past 12 months, the best is actually yet to come for Algerian football.