AFTER a turbulent period which saw Algeria employ seven coaches in three years, it has taken Djamel Belmadi less than one year to restore order and turn a dispirited squad into finalists at the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON).
Although he had only coached in Qatar before taking the job, Belmadi has lifted the “Desert Foxes” out of their rut and turned them into the most impressive side at the tournament with five wins and a draw, 12 goals scored and two conceded, on their way to Friday’s final against Senegal.
Belmadi has managed to bring out the best in a talented squad and maintain a ruthless streak, although there are still occasional excesses such as Ramy Bensebaini’s extraordinary self-slapping incident in the quarter-final against Ivory Coast.
Bensebaini grabbed the arm of Wilfried Zaha, then slapped himself in the face with the Ivorian’s hand before falling theatrically to the ground, clutching his face in a failed attempt to get his opponent sent off.
Belmadi, 43, has also succeeded in lifting the pressure on their top player Riyad Mahrez, allowing him to be a pivotal figure but without expecting him to run the show.
“I do not like highlighting players. We need to put a little less focus on Mahrez if we want to make this a big tournament for us,” he said at the start.
Belmadi himself was a gifted midfielder, who could unlock defences with his passing, in a playing career which took him to 10 clubs in France, England and Qatar, including Olympique Marseille and Manchester City.
He also played 20 times for Algeria, scoring five goals.
Algeria’s troubles of recent years began after a quarter-final exit at the AFCON in 2015 which led to criticism of coach Christian Gourcuff. The Frenchman clung on for another year, eventually quitting following a 3-3 draw against Ethiopia.
Nabil Neghiz stepped in for one game as caretaker before the reigns were handed to Milovan Rajevac who lasted for two games, quitting after a 1-1 draw at home to Cameroon in a World Cup qualifier.
WORLD CUP FAILURE
Belgian Georges Leekens was next and he lasted five matches, including a 3-1 loss to Nigeria in another World Cup qualifier.
Then came Spaniard Lucas Alvarez who resigned following home-and-away World Cup qualifying defeats to Zambia which meant Algeria missed out on Russia.
By this point, the team was in such disarray that Mahrez was allowed to skip the Zambia match to negotiate a transfer.
The federation then turned to Rabah Madjer, a well-known former player, but he quit after a run of four successive friendly defeats. After considering Carlos Queiroz for the role, the Algeria federation turned to French-born Belmadi.
Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr, who faced the old Algeria during the World Cup qualifiers and Belmadi’s new-look side in Sunday’s semi-final, made an honest comparison.
“They were fragile (two years ago). There were lots of individual mistakes, they made it easy for us,” he said.
“Now they are solid, they have a good balance between attack and defence, they are still very physical and they have progressed a lot.”
Algeria’s only previous AFCON title was in 1990 on home soil and Belmadi has told his players they have a chance to do something that not even Lakhdar Belloumi and Salah Assad, who helped put Algerian football on the map in the 1980s, managed.
“Those players are great players, they made history for our football, but even those players didn’t win it in 1990,” he said. “This is our target, we want to write our history and the players want to write their history as well.” – Reuters