Nobody at the African Cup of Nations goes untouched by the grizzly events of last Friday, and the fatal gun attack on the bus carrying members of the Togo squad and delegation to their base in Cabinda. In Luanda, the capital, news reached the Algerian players on board their coach en route for their first practice session in Angola.
Players who have club colleagues or former teammates in the Togo squad were especially anxious. "This was bad for Angola, a country which has come out of a terrible civil war and it was not good for Caf, the African football confederation," said Rabah Saadane, Algeria's experienced head coach. But he dismissed the value of cancelling the competition or of a widespread player boycott. "That would just give the rebels responsible for the attack what they wanted."
Football's proximity to violence, and political conflict, is familiar enough to Algerians. In November, the global media published and broadcast images of the bloodied heads and cut faces of the Algerian players whose bus was attacked in Cairo when they travelled to Egypt for the final group match of qualifying for the 2010 World Cup. There, the wounded visitors lost 2-0, their grip on a remarkable place at the finals in South Africa apparently loosened. Four days later, tied with Egypt on goal difference and points, both teams were obliged to contest an unprecedented play-off in Sudan.
Witnesses saw men with blades enter the ground. Pandemonium in the streets after Algeria's surprise 1-0 victory caused more than a dozen fatalities in North Africa. A quarter of a century of impatience explains some of the excitable scenes that greeted Algeria's qualification for the World Cup finals, their first since the successive tournaments of the 1980s when a gifted set of footballers recorded, most notably, a startling victory over West Germany in Spain.
The country has been through some rough times since then, caught in a conflict between rigid Islamism and iron government through most of the 1990s, its favourite sport frequently caught in the crossfire, from club owners being assassinated to the imprisonment of player Salah Assad for his alleged association with hardline religious groups. More recently, the Algerian national team found themselves banned from holding friendly matches in France because of the danger of violence erupting in the country who once held the territory as a colony.
But they were back in France until four days ago, training for the best part of two weeks for their first appearance at a Nations Cup finals since 2004. Reports of tensions there between management and players have been quashed by Saadane, who said: "It's lovely to be back at this competition, and at a World Cup for the first time in 24 years. At last, we have found our right level." That level bears uncomfortable comparison, however, with the standards of two or three decades ago, when Algeria reached successive World Cups and were crowned champions of Africa in 1990. In June they will be considered outsiders to progress from a World Cup group including England and the USA. "Back then, in the 1980s, most of the players were playing in Algerian clubs," says Saadane, "so the coach had more time with them and we could prepare together more. Now my players are scattered around Europe."
But where the best Algerians of the two 1980s World Cups were head-hunted by the leading clubs across the Mediterranean, today's successors are lower profile, employed at mid-ranking French or German teams in the main, or at Portsmouth and Hull City. Nonetheless, Saadane instilled a positive attitude in qualifying and the momentum that took them past Egypt is considerable. They have risen from outside the top 100 in the Fifa rankings last year to 28th place. Today they meet the minnows of Malawi, needing three points to arm them for the fiercer contests ahead in Group A of the Nations Cup, against Angola and Mali. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org Malawi v Algeria, 5.45pm, Aljazeera Sport +9