“When you walked through the streets of Algeria, you would look up and be met with one face on every billboard: Zinedine Zidane. Everywhere” says Football Daily’s Zac Djellab, whose father was born in Algeria at the time of the revolution in the 1960s.
For years Zidane’s heritage as an Algerian-born-French-playing superstar trod the path for others to follow. Karim Benzema and Nabil Fekir both opted to play for France over Algeria (albeit not through birth right as Zidane’s choice had been). They inevitably chose to represent France as Zidane had done.
Things might be changing, however. Houssem Aouar’s performances for Lyon have captured the attention across Europe. They have also brought light back to the debate of whether to play for Algeria or France for players of Algerian parentage. Even if he were to follow the likes of Fekir and Benzema, the status of the Algerian national team has changed from just being a French talent subsidiary.
The 0-0 draw with England at the 2010 World Cup was a highly prevalent game. Wayne Rooney’s camera focussed outburst at full time, England’s dire showing and the haunting cry of the vuvuzela. “I remember a bird landing on the goalpost and people claiming it had cursed England in that game” says Zac, “I think people forget that Algeria did their job as underdogs to defend and defend well!”
Wind forward four years and Algeria have reached the World Cup last sixteen for the first time. They face eventual winners Germany. Like the England game, it stands 0-0 at half time, and requires extra-time strikes from Andre Schurrle and Mesut Ozil to overcome the obdurate Desert Foxes. Again, the game is best remembered for the performance of the bigger side. Manuel Neuer spent most of extra-time on the halfway line in an extraordinary performance. Little attention was paid to the bravery of the performance, or the feat of reaching the knock-outs.
Failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia was hugely disappointing for those following this growing team. However this setback was little more than a bump in the road. By this time, Algeria had a Zidane of their own to don the billboards. “Now when you walk through a street in Algeria, it’s Riyad Mahrez everywhere. He is a superstar there”. The Manchester City winger is undoubtedly the greatest player in their history and is the cornerstone of their growing team.
“Children in Algeria grow up playing on the streets with their mates. A huge part of that is being able to dribble and beat a man with a trick or skill.”
“They are not brought up to be defenders. Everyone wants to be a winger like Riyad Mahrez; slim, quick and skilful” explains Zac, who has spent much of his life visiting his father’s birthplace in the country.
The 2019 African Cup of Nations is the highlight in Algeria’s recent history, beating Senegal in the final. They were ranked 70th in the world coming into the tournament; eleven sides higher than them competing.
Senegal were the favourites to win the title. Yet carried by Mahrez and a rock-solid defence including Borussia Monchengladbach left back Ramy Bensebaini and AC Milan defensive midfielder Ismael Bennacer, they scrapped to an ugly win in the final over their more coveted opponents.
Bennacer was named player of the tournament. Aged just twenty-two he is among Europe’s most exciting talents in his position. His form has been a huge factor in AC Milan’s upturn in recent form.
“It was a shame Algeria didn’t qualify for the World Cup in 2018. Mahrez was that bit younger and he’ll be thirty by the time of the next World Cup.” Says Zac. Mahrez may be the superstar of the team, but the group of players is exciting and of a quality they have not seen before.
Youcef Atal is an impressive right back on the other flank to Bensebaini. Aissa Mandi is a starting centre back for Real Betis, and ahead of this defensive roster are the likes of Bennacer, potentially Aouar, Mahrez and Brentford’s Said Benrahma. “We will definitely need a goalkeeper” says Zac.“M’Bohli is a good shot-stopper. But has a huge mistake in him, and is most famous for being sent off for throwing the ball at a player’s head.”. This reinforces the view of Algerian youngsters having their attentions on being a winger, rather than defensive metronome.
After winning the African Cup of Nations, Algeria are in a strong position heading into World Cup qualifying. Many a ‘smaller’ side have one standout player in their ranks, however, with little to support their superiority. For years this was Mahrez, as is the same for Mohamed Salah or Hakim Ziyech for their respective nations.
However this Algerian team is both attackingly vibrant through Mahrez and Benrahama, and defensively solid through the aforementioned defensive players. Few African sides arrive at a World Cup with such rounded squads, and give Algerians hope of further progression on their 2014 showing.
“I hope they perform well at the next World Cup, I’ll definitely be watching and supporting them should they get there.”
Zac also speaks of the pride in being Algerian that has prospered since the team’s recent improvement.
“I want to pass this love for Algeria on to my children as my dad did to me, and the national team definitely give that sense of pride. They will only be twenty-five percent Algerian, but I want them to have that culture and heritage within them”
This speaks volumes of how the Desert Foxes have carried the country forward. Go back twenty years and Algeria’s biggest contribution to the football world was a player who played for France. Now they are creating their own national and international legacy and stepping out of the Zidane shadow.
You can find Zac on Twitter at ‘@ZacDjellab’