After an absence of 24 years, the Desert Foxes are happy just to be in the finals
A sense of gloom is sweeping over Algeria as the World Cup approaches and the country awaits in increasing desperation on the fitness of several key players in the build-up to the tournament.
Algeria’s top stars have seen little action since the African Nations Cup in Angola in January. That is not because they have had only one international assignment since – in March against Serbia – but rather because they have been either injured or dropped by their club sides.
While the likes of Karim Ziani, Yazid Mansouri, Nadir Belhadj, Mourad Meghni, Rafik Halliche, Madjid Bougherra, Antar Yahia and Hassan Yebda have between them played far too little football in recent months to be in peak form for the World Cup, they will still be on the plane to South Africa.
Coach Rabah Saadane says they will be selected for their part in helping the country to an unexpected semi-final berth at the Nations Cup and he insists he has no option but to “hope for the best” in their group matches against Slovenia, USA and England.
It is a fatalistic approach, but the Algerians have not been sitting on their hands. The federation arranged and financed trips to Qatar for four first-choice players in a bid to speed their recovery from recent injury. Meghni spent three weeks working on his recuperation, while Bougherra, Belhadj and Hameur Bouazza also made forays to a fitness clinic in the oil-rich state.
In the month that they have to prepare before their opening game, the squad will head to Switzerland to train in the mountains, replicating the conditions they will encounter for their matches at altitude in South Africa. The hope is that these players can regain some sort of fitness during that time.
Yebda has spoken of the danger of a lack of match fitness, his own form stalled by a five-week injury break before returning to action in the FA Cup semi-final win for his club Portsmouth over Tottenham Hotspur.
“It is a situation that could harm us because we won’t be prepared for the relentless nature of a tournament like the World Cup,” he said.
Algeria do not have great expectations, anyway, though they generally believe in their ability to beat Slovenia in their opening match and then hope to maybe edge out the Americans for second place in their group and progress to the knockout phase. The match against England is the highlight and Saadane sounds like a star-struck fan at the prospect of pitting his wits against Fabio Capello.
In a sense, Algeria’s World Cup qualification came as an unexpected bonus after years in the doldrums. Their dramatic play-off win over Egypt in November provided enough satisfaction to overcome any disappointment that might befall them in South Africa.
The view from Algeria
“I want to say to the sceptics that don’t believe in our national team that we have players capable of giving us great satisfaction. I don’t have any doubt we will do well. It is a big plus our players have a strong mental capacity and they play good football. There are many reasons to be right behind the team.”
Rabah Madjer, former Algeria World Cup star now a TV pundit
“Algeria are a young and talented team that, while inconsistent, can be a match for anyone on their day. They boost some very skilful players but their lack of discipline, especially when losing in a match, can cost them dearly – as well as the fact they lack the big experience needed for such a big event. A prime example of bad discipline is what happened against Egypt in Angola in January.
Coach Saadane has a big role to play in preparing his players mentally. The first game against Slovenia is crucial if they want to have any chance of progressing to the second round, which will be a big achievement.”
Ziad Bouraad, influential pan-Arab sports editor