Algeria turn to great entertainer Yacine Brahimi to lift spirits after miserable Afcon

New coach Vladimir Petkovic shakes things up with some eye-catching picks, including return of Al Gharafa winger

Yacine Brahimi, of Algeria, right, in action against Bolivia during the friendly in Algiers. EPA
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It had been 802 days since he last started an international match, a few more since he last wore the captain’s armband for his country.

He has celebrated three birthdays in that period and, at 34, an advanced age for an attacking footballer, these were experiences Yacine Brahimi had assumed were deep in his past.

Yet at the weekend, Brahimi heard loud and clear that the most devoted supporters of Algeria, bruised by successive failures at the Africa Cup of Nations, still regard him very fondly indeed. His unexpected recall to the national squad and his immediate elevation to the captaincy brought large sections of the crowd to their feet even in the warm-ups for Friday night’s meeting with Bolivia in Algiers.

It was more than nostalgia for a favourite entertainer, an icon across the Mena region. Brahimi received a similar ovation after his 70 minutes as creative hub of the side, 3-2 winners after a late flurry of goals, and he can anticipate more applause this evening when South Africa, bronze medallists at Afcon last month, visit the Nelson Mandela stadium in Baraki.

As a feelgood figurehead for a team in the doldrums, Algeria’s 2019 Afcon title having been followed by two group-phase exits at the continental championship, Brahimi’s recall works for Algeria. He has a respected place in a strong national tradition of stylists, with the wizardry of his dribbling, the vision in his passing and a back catalogue of success in European club football, chiefly during his long spell at Portugal’s Porto, where he won a league title and various player of the year awards.

But as a pathfinder for Algeria’s would-be brighter future, under a new head coach Vladimir Petkovic, Brahimi is hardly of an age to build a renaissance around. He’ll be well into his 36th year for the next Afcon in Morocco, scheduled for June 2025, and into his 37th by the next World Cup which, with nine guaranteed places for African teams, Algeria aspire to reach.

But he is in form, as 18 goals in 16 games this season for Al Gharafa, in the Qatar Stars League that has been Brahimi’s playground for five years, attest, and as Friday’s audience were delighted to see when, shortly before half-time against Bolivia, Brahimi wriggled his way past a pair of close markers as they hemmed him in close to the corner flag. A nimble pirouette, coupled with some upper body muscle, took him past both his Bolivian minders to set up the night’s opening goal for Amine Gouiri.

“I hope I can continue like this,” said Brahimi of his performance. He was delighted to be back in the national jersey. “After more than two years away from the national team, it’s an honour. But the most important thing was the win, to repay our great support. The motivation is still there.”

As for the captaincy, it felt like a temporary loan, said Brahimi. “The coach gave me the armband, but I’m not the only captain. There’s Riyad Mahrez, who is not with us at the moment but remains the team captain.”

The question of Mahrez’s future, as leader or even participant, in the medium-term of Algerian football, remains hazy. His poor Afcon in January, in which he was demoted to the bench until half-time of the last, losing group game against Mauritania unleashed some bitter criticism from pundits and public and when Djamel Belmadi stepped down as head coach after the tournament, Mahrez said a regretful goodbye to a long-term loyalist.

Petkovic, Belmadi’s successor, had a long conversation with Mahrez after taking on the job last month and listened as the former Manchester City winger explained that, for the time being, Mahrez, now at Al Ahli in Saudi Arabia, wants time to reflect on his international career.

“He feels he doesn’t have the energy to play a major role with the national team at the moment,” reports Petkovic. “But the door is always open, as it is to anybody.”

Brahimi’s recall is proof of that, as is the summons, after a gap of almost five years between his fourth cap for Algeria and his fifth against Bolivia, for 29-year-old attacking midfielder Yassine Benzia, whose second international goal initiated a stirring late comeback on Petkovic’s debut on the touchline. Benzia has been in good form for Qarabag, the Azerbaijani club who have enjoyed a strong run in the Europa League.

His call-up for his country endorses the new coach’s promise to assess players on how they are performing, not so much where, and that elevated past reputations only count for so much.

Among those excluded from Petkovic’s squad for the friendlies against Bolivia and South Africa were 100-cap Islam Slimani, the country’s all-time record goalscorer, 83-cap Sofiane Feghouli, 51-cap Youcef Belaili and veteran goalkeeper Rais M’Bohli, all of whom were in Ivory Coast for the forlorn Afcon campaign.

Some of those senior players, African champions in 2019, may find their way back for June’s World Cup qualifiers against Guinea and Uganda – Algeria have maximum points from their two games so far – but for Belaili and Feghouli, the new coach has warned that “there is big competition for creative midfield roles”.

All the more so with this month’s recalls of winger Said Benrahma, left out of Belmadi’s last Afcon squad, of Benzia and of the evergreen Brahimi.

Updated: March 26, 2024, 4:09 AM