What makes a winning team? Any coach worth their salt will acknowledge that certain intangibles are part of what a successful team is built on. And there’s no team that makes this more apparent than Djamel Belmadi’s Algeria.
Although the Fennecs were held to a scoreless draw against underdogs Sierra Leone in their opening fixture of the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon), the reigning African champions are unfazed in their pursuit of glory.
Here’s a telling statistic: Algeria are unbeaten in 35 matches – just two short of a tie with Italy’s world record set last summer. And despite not having the biggest names in their squad, they remain true favourites because of the healthy culture they’ve established since Belmadi’s arrival as their manager in August 2018.
“Courage, altruism, love and hope. That is what brought us to where we are now. If we did not have this spirit, none of what we are doing would now be possible,” Belmadi emphasised at a prematch press conference in November. And the evidence for his assertion is there for all to see when Algeria is in action.
Take the case of winger Youcef Belaïli. The 29-year-old is currently without a club, having terminated his contract with Qatar SC. Logic would dictate that Saïd Benrahma should start opposite captain Riyad Mahrez, given his growing reputation and sterling performances with West Ham United. Yet when Belaïli pulls on the Algeria shirt, he is a player transformed – and Belmadi knows this.
Belaïli, an Oran native, is the quintessential Algerian footballer. He is the player one sees in every neighbourhood, the one who had the talent to make it – delicious body feints, audacious dribbling and spectacular goals – but never quite did.
In 2015, Belaïli was suspended for cocaine use and critics claimed his career was over. But “Pablo”, as Algerians affectionately call him, after the infamous drug lord and “king of cocaine” Pablo Escobar, clawed his way back into the national team and has grown into a role that is just as important as Mahrez’s opposite him.
Like any troublemaker, Belaïli needed intangibles to overcome the difficulties in his career and make him the player he is. Belmadi believed in him, held him accountable and entrusted him with responsibility. In 2021, the free agent scored one goal and delivered an eye-popping 13 assists in 12 matches for Algeria.
Getting it all – and more
There are many players like Pablo who have been inspirational in the Algerian colours. It seems that any player Belmadi selects outplays his ability. Mehdi Zeffane, a pedestrian rightback playing in the Russian second division, held Ahmed Musa and Sadio Mané in check in both the 2019 Afcon semifinal and final. That is not down to luck – it is a by-product of the confidence the coach instills in his players and the tactical preparation he invests in his match preparations.
Prior to Algeria’s group stage match against Senegal in 2019, Belmadi fielded a question from the media in attendance asking him to disclose his line-up. “You want me to give you my line-up? How about if I give you yours?” he countered with a smile. “Wagué on the right, Kouyaté, Koulibaly, Sabaly, Ndiaye, Diatta, Gueye. I think he [the journalist] will replace Balde with Mané, Niang and Sarr,” he finished to raucous laughter and applause from the room.
Like any high-level coach, Belmadi familiarises himself with his opponents, but the minutiae of his instructions reveal the level of preparation he does before a match. Following Algeria’s triumph in the 2019 Afcon semifinal against Nigeria, Belmadi detailed how he had countered the latter’s strength.
“We knew that their strength is the speed of wingers Musa and [Samuel] Chukwueze… We tried to close space on the flanks and put pressure on their midfielders. We also asked our striker to press as much as he can, especially near the two central defenders. They are good and they have experience, but I believe they get into trouble when you run at and around them.”
As the journalists filed out of the press conference a few minutes later, one British-Nigerian reporter told the Algerian journalists: “You guys have a real coach. He was exactly right about our centre-halves, [Leon] Balogun and [William] Troost-Ekong. They are good but slow. You can tell he does his homework.”
Formidable and hungry for glory
Two years on, Belmadi’s side has more weapons in its arsenal. Algeria have had the chance to experiment with different blocks and presses when defending, and varying passing patterns when in possession. They have metamorphosised into a versatile, tactically astute side that plays with elevated levels of intensity.
Journalist Dan Perez, writing in the French sports daily L’Equipe, rightly pointed out that during their Afcon run in 2019, Algeria committed 23 fouls per match, almost double Italy’s tally in their title-winning campaign at the 2020 European Championship. The North Africans will always play with more spirit than their opponents, be more prepared than them and, more than likely, will be technically superior too.
In Cameroon, Belmadi has reverted back to his trusted 4-3-3 with the exact same starting line-up bar one: an injured Adlène Guedioura has been replaced with the up-and-coming FC Twente metronome Ramiz Zerrouki. Though he doesn’t possess Guedioura’s physical tools, Zerrouki is a cleaner and more disciplined footballer. Against teams that present less of a counter-attacking threat, Algeria will line up in a 4-4-2 with Islam Slimani and Baghdad Bounedjah as strikers and defending with a high line.
After dropping points to Sierra Leone, the message from the group was clear: Algeria’s objectives are unchanged. “It’s not because we’ve drawn one match that we’re going to give up. Of course we are going to qualify, we will go all the way, God willing. This is a faux pas and we’ll rebound,” Ramy Bensebaini asserted in the post-match mixed zone.
Pundits have pointed out Algeria’s difficult path to the title in that they will have to beat elite sides in the round of 16. But this is no deterrent for a team who has adopted another Belmadi value: belief. “I mean, really believing that anything is possible,” he said in that November press conference.
A year earlier, on French television, Belmadi was asked about his goals for the 2022 Fifa World Cup. “Why not win it?” he joked. The humour may have been used to avoid prediction and controversy, but one is for certain: this Algeria, if they qualify for the World Cup, will not go into a single match thinking they cannot win, no matter their opponent.