Mohamed Amoura poised to become flag-bearer for next generation of Algerian talent

Gifted striker is making his mark for Belgian side USG with Europe's big guns lining up moves

Mohamed Amoura has played a key role in Union Saint-Gilloise's surge to the top of the Belgian league this season. AFP
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It is the sprints, ball at his feet, that catch the eye, that push the speedometer’s needle so it twitches up above 36 kph. But there’s a good deal more to Mohamed Amoura, flag-bearer for Algerian football’s next generation, and a star on the rise just when his country needs one.

Besides the acceleration, he has a springy leap from his low base. Witness the most spectacular of the goals Amoura has been decorating the top flight of Belgian football with this season, a dashing overhead kick that, back in November against FC Bruges, truly established the 23-year-old as the man to build a title-chasing team around.

That team, Union Saint-Gilloise, or USG, on Thursday seek to extend their reputation as the sharpest-eyed, best-run talent-spotters in European club football’s middle tier, up against Turkish heavyweights Fenerbahce in the Uefa Conference League, with a quarter-final place at stake over the two legs, the first of them in Brussels.

An "anti-Amoura plan" is anticipated by USG’s coaching staff, such has been the impact of the striker since he joined them last summer. They suspect the Fenerbahce defence will sit a little deeper to counter those sprints; and perhaps some extra-robust marking of Amoura to examine any brittleness in his temperament.

Further along the road, USG are making post-Amoura plans, acknowledging that, as one of the game’s hottest young prospects, he may no longer be spearheading them beyond this season’s likely Belgian league title – the club have an eight-point lead at the top – the Belgian Cup final – USG’s first in more than a century – and wherever the Conference League adventure ends.

The hope is to emulate, at least, last season’s run to the quarter-finals – they lost 5-2 to Germany's Bayer Leverkusen over two legs in the last-eight of the Europa League in 2023.

USG, only promoted from Belgium’s second division in 2021, are propelled by an enviable upward mobility, but so are the talents they expertly scout.

Last season’s leading scorer, the Nigerian Victor Boniface, was sold to Leverkusen, where he is on course to win the 2023/24 Bundesliga, for more than €20 million. Union had bought him, from the Norwegian club Bodo-Glimt, for €6 million just 11 months earlier.

Amoura’s valuation is charting the same trajectory. He cost around €4 million, from Lugano in Switzerland, last August; there’s interest in him from the Premier League, from France and major clubs in Italy and Germany.

“He’s got the characteristics to thrive in Germany or Italy,” believes Nordin Jabri, the Belgian-Moroccan former international turned television analyst. “What coaches see, beside the goals and the pace, is that he has the capacity to keep running and running to press the opposition.”

“He’s been an absolute blessing for the Belgian league,” enthuses Philippe Albert, Jabri’s former teammate in the Belgium national team and a fellow pundit.

Amoura will turn 24 in May, and, as he admitted in December, the ascent has often seemed as dazzlingly fast as one of his swift breaks from the halfway line.

“Four years ago, I was fresh out of a little club in Algeria and now I’m an established first-teamer here,” he told reporters. “It makes me want to tell young Algerian players they too should believe in themselves.”

It has been an inspiring journey, and mould-breaking in a period when, for aspiring footballers across the Maghreb, it can look more and more like the fast-track to elite-level success is through a European club academy and indeed through an entire hothoused upbringing in Europe rather than in North Africa.

Like the successful Morocco squad who reached the 2022 World Cup semi-final, Algeria, Africa Cup of Nations winners in 2019, have a large proportion of European-born-and-raised players in their senior national side. Some previously represented France at age-group level; almost all learnt most of their football amid the coaching dogmas and the high-grade facilities of European club academies.

Amoura represents a different route to becoming a professional. “I come from the mountains,” he says of his roots, in Taher, near Jelil, eastern Algeria.

His father worked on farms; his own love of football grew from playing in streets, and, in his early teens, became a vocation only once he had found allies to offer him a place a stay so he could enrol at training with the youth teams of JS Djijel, a club in Algeria’s regionalised lower divisions.

He endured setbacks, like a rejection from the Paradou academy in Algiers. Arouma suspects his height – he’s a diminutive 1.68 metres – counted against him.

But he kept dribbling, kept refining his tricks, and found his way to ES Setif. There, he scored on his senior debut, aged 19. He finished his first full season at Setif with 17 goals.

Lugano recruited him, and after very few training sessions he had a new nickname. Teammates called him “little Salah,” for his speed, his confidence on the ball and for the career parallels with Mohamed Salah: a North African prodigy signed young by a Swiss club, as the Egyptian was by Basel.

The Lugano chapter had its frustrations, Amoura often used as an impact substitute when he’d have preferred to start games. But USG looked less at the number of minutes he played that what he did with them.

The Belgian club applied the mix of observational expertise and data-driven metrics they have pioneered in scouting to feel sure of Amoura’s potential to develop. “They’re a club who for the past three years have built teams really effectively and with flair,” says Albert.

In Amoura’s case, the flair is carefully curated. “He’s an out-of-the-ordinary player,” adds Albert, “and the key challenge is to preserve the spontaneity in his game. He’s about so much more than just speed. He’s two-footed and has a real poise in his finishing.”

The statistics, in this his first season in a new league, speak for that. Amoura’s 17 league goals for USG have been scored at one every 80 minutes on the pitch, a rate comparable to Harry Kane for Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga, and a little more frequently than Kylian Mbappe for Paris Saint-Germain.

Granted, those two feted strikers are working in stronger domestic competitions than USG operate in, but Amoura can expect soon enough to be keeping the same sort of elite company.

He can look forward to a more prominent role with his national team, too. Algeria’s new manager Vladimir Petkovic, appointed following Djamel Belmadi’s departure in the wake of a dismal Afcon in January, has a manifesto for renewal.

Supporters are eager for an attacking figurehead to succeed Riyad Mahrez, the standard-bearer when Algeria were Africa’s champions but much criticised in recent months and dropped by the end of the last Afcon campaign, where Amoura was only called into action once Belmadi’s men were sliding towards an ignominious group-phase exit.

“It’s important to start afresh,” says Petkovic. Time for the starlet from the mountains to lead his country’s uphill climb.

Updated: March 06, 2024, 5:31 PM