Algeria's Afcon 2019 title win in Cairo symbolic moment for turbulent nation

The North Africans, not even considered the strongest team in the Mena region, defy logic by lifting the continental trophy

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Earlier this year, a new word entered the vocabulary of Algerians.

‘Vendredire’ is a play on the French for Friday, with the added idea of giving voice - 'dire' - to strong feelings. It emerged out of the end-of-week street demonstrations that began in February to protest against stagnant, oppressive government.

The word has become a shorthand for peaceful, determined shows of popular might and it was being readily used to describe this weekend’s outpourings of flag-waving celebration across Algeria and the many cities - above all in France - where the Algerian diaspora live in large numbers.

The ‘vendredire’ spirit had been awakened this time by victory in Cairo in the final of the Africa Cup of Nations, an achievement that realises ambitions nurtured for more than 60 years, ever since a fabled set of Algerian footballers came together to represent the Front de Liberation National during the war for independence against France and, using the sport as potent emblem, set off abroad and conquered Africa.

Yes, post-independence Algeria have won the Cup of Nations before, in 1990, but then they had the advantage of playing at home. Friday's triumph, via a sometimes attritional 1-0 win over Senegal, has a different feel for taking place on what used to be hostile territory, Egypt.

In Cairo, there were perhaps 20,000 who had flown in from Algiers or from homes in Europe, to be there for a symbolic moment for a nation enduring fretful political turbulence.

Les Fennecs, the so-called Desert Foxes, are deserving champions.

If they did not provide a dazzling spectacle in a final where a stroke of early luck - a deflection from Baghdad Bounedjah’s shot spinning up and over the Senegal goalkeeper, Alfred Gomis - shaped the contest, they established their calibre in the lead-up.

“We finished with the best attack [13 goals scored in seven games], and the best defence [two conceded], what more can you ask?,” said Djamel Belmadi, the impressive manager, and the first to negotiate his way, unbeaten, through a 24-team Cup of Nations.

Belmadi is an unexpected hero, given he only took the job 11 months ago. He was Algeria’s seventh manager in barely four years, inheritor of a squad deflated by a poor 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign.

Belmadi, who captained Algeria in the lean early 2000s, has made bold decisions: he excluded a player on the eve of kick-off for behaving irresponsibly - Haris Belkebla made a crude gesture on social media - and, in his search for a balanced XI, dared relegate the gifted winger Yacine Brahimi to the bench.

In a tournament where Egypt had home support and a fit, in-form Mohammed Salah, where Morocco seemed to boast the flair and experience to lead the challenge of the Mena nations, Algeria were deemed dark horses, at best. As it turned out, they and a dogged Tunisia, beaten narrowly in the semi-final, performed strongest of the Maghreb countries.

Algeria's players throw their head coach Djamel Belmadi in the air after the African Cup of Nations final soccer match between Algeria and Senegal in Cairo International stadium in Cairo, Egypt, Friday, July 19, 2019. Algeria won 1-0. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Manager Djamel Belmadi, who captained Algeria in the early 2000s, has etched his name in his country's football history books. Ariel Schalit / AP Photo

As Belmadi noted, Algeria were the sole semi-finalists not at last summer’s World Cup. They took on Africa's current hierarchy: they beat Senegal in the group stage and contained them again in the final. They edged ahead of Nigeria in the semi, thanks to a deft free-kick from the captain Riyad Mahrez, whose season now includes a Premier League title and two English trophies with Manchester City and this cherished major international medal.

If Mahrez was discreet in the final, it was because he attended to defensive disciplines rather than launching his smooth slaloms. Belmadi appreciated that application as much as Mahrez’s artistic flourishes.

He applauded the endeavour of Ismael Bennacer in battling for the ball and providing the opening for the craggy Bounedjah to shoot for the decisive goal. Bennacer, the 21-year-old midfielder, was Player of the Tournament, and, as he is feted across a huge swathe of North Africa, a part of North London will feel puzzled.

Bennacer seems likely to join AC Milan from Empoli. He was with Arsenal until his late teens; they let him go.

“This is historic,” said Belmadi, whose emotional investment has been paraded through hundreds of agitated and vividly gleeful gestures on the touchline. “It’s for the country, and we are a real football country.”

Of that, no doubt.

Belmadi’s next target? To achieve what none of the last five Afcon champions have and retain the title. Beyond that, to lead a strong North African challenge in 2022, at the Middle East’s first World Cup.