Thursday, June 17, 2010
Saadane's Algeria ready to represent
Give or take a few gripes after the draw with USA, Fabio Capello appears to have the confidence of England's media and public, in stark contrast to some of the barbs directed at the first foreign coach to take the post, Sven-Goran Eriksson. It takes time to buck tradition. Ask the man who will sit on the opposite bench at Cape Town on Friday. Algeria's Rabah Saadane is the only African coach leading the continent's half-a-dozen participants in the first-ever African World Cup.
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The importance of flying the flag for Africa this summer is huge. Even for giants of the game like Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto'o, South Africa 2010 promises to be the crowning moment of their glorious careers. With so many high-profile players, the presence of the likes of Eriksson, Paul Le Guen and Milovan Rajevac at the head of African teams is a sharp contrast.
"It really is a big problem for Africa," says Saadane, who himself replaced an overseas coach, Frenchman Jean-Michel Cavalli, in 2007. "It owes a lot to the African leaders (of the game), and the African population, which doesn't have any confidence - especially in high-level competition - in African coaches. In my opinion, there is the competence in top-level African coaches. I think it's a psychological failure that Africa has to get over."
Saadane is no new kid on the block. Now in his fifth spell in charge of Algeria, the 64-year-old has been involved in all of their defining moments in World Cup history. He was head coach when the Desert Foxes last made the finals, in Mexico in 1986, and was part of the backroom team when they beat West Germany in Spain four years earlier in one of the competition's biggest shocks. After Saturday's narrow defeat to Slovenia, a result against Fabio Capello's men would surely top the lot.
Nadir Belhadj knows Algeria's lengthy absence from the torunament is a big disadvantage going into Friday's game. "England, and the USA, know the competition well, while we've been out of it for 24 years,"admits the Portsmouth defender. Belhadj thinks Algeria have to look to more recent exploits for inspiration, like the thrilling African Nations Cup (CAN) quarter-final against the much-fancied Ivory Coast. "It was the best match of the CAN, a super match and our best performance,"he enthuses. It had everything; goals, desire, technique and a good tactical plan. We have to produce more matches like that."
Maybe it's Algeria's outsider status; maybe it's the fact that nine of the squad were born in France; maybe it's because they're not even considered the best team in north Africa - though Egypt, winners of the last three CANs, have not even qualified - but few have pinpointed them as African standard bearers.
Captain Yazid Mansouri, dropped from the first XI for the Slovenia game amid considerable acrimony, says the responsibility isn't lost on the players themselves. "It's very symbolic. Algeria has put itself back on the international map, and in Africa as well. It's the combination of lots of things making history, and we're very proud to have qualified, even if it was a painful process," he says, referring the play-off win over arch-rivals Egypt in Sudan.
Nevertheless, Algeria are in a unique position. While the majority of most of the other African squads ply their trade in Europe, many of Algeria's players grew up there. Several commentators have suggested that this winter tournament represents the perfect chance for a European nation to win the trophy outside their home continent for the first time, but Mansouri believes that the difference in weather from the majority of World Cups is an advantage for Algeria too. "We put in a great performance (in the CAN), but that was one thing and this is another,"he says. "We're going to be in a totally different context. The climate will be more favourable for us, because it was really hot in Angola,"he remembers, puffing out his cheeks in a mock hot flush.
The 'French question' is a frequently asked one. As with, say, Ireland in 1990 and 1994, critics sniff at Algeria as a set of players who weren't good enough to cut the international mustard in the country of their birth. Belhadj, who played for France at Under-18 level, is keen to retort. "I always wanted to play for Algeria, but I was brought up in France and went through the French academy system, so I didn't have much of an option. As soon as I got the authorisation, I committed to Algeria, no problem."
For those who grew up weaned on stories of a faraway homeland, the desire to bond with their heritage is strong. Mansouri (who played in England for Coventry back in 2003) was called up to make his Algeria debut in 2001 by the nation's most celebrated player - Rabah Madjer, who took Algerian football onto the top table of European football with his outrageous back-heeled goal in the 1987 European Cup final for Porto against Bayern Munich. Madjer has coached the national side in three separate spells since his retirement, and he is still close to the current captain.
"He's a true legend of African football, a world star, who made a mark for us with that fabulous goal in the European Cup,"smiles Mansouri. "It's a source of pride to have been picked for the first time by Rabah, and we've kept in touch. He calls me to give me advice and encourage me. He's a great man."
Madjer's words will come in handy when Algeria take the field against England. Mansouri guarantees that his side will display all the fight that has got them this far. "We are competitors,"he says. "We know that England are above us, on paper at least. All the other teams (in the group) have more experience than us, but mentally we're strong and morale is good. We're going there to do something."
The Algerian players were speaking at an event organized by Puma - www.pumafootball.com