The ball ricocheted off Madjid Bougherra’s head, and the Stade Mustapha Tchaker erupted. Algeria’s captain took off toward the corner flag, beating his chest wildly, but was swiftly swamped by joyous teammates. The home side’s bench then arrived. Soon, Vahid Halilhodzic, the typically granite-faced coach, broke down in tears.
The aesthetics of the strike mattered little. That Bougherra’s initial stab forward was blocked by Daouda Diakite, the Burkina Faso goalkeeper, that the rebound was smashed off the line by a visiting defender and straight against Bougherra, was lost in the euphoria.
It was a goal, the most crucial of goals. A captain’s goal. It had levelled last November’s World Cup play-off between Algeria and Burkina Faso; made the score 1-0 on the night and 3-3 on aggregate. Coming just after half time, Algeria would hang on, at times by the skin of their teeth and the width of a post, until referee Badara Diatta blew his final whistle and the stadium rumbled and rocked again.
Algeria had triumphed on the away-goal rule; a spot at this month’s World Cup was theirs.
“It was a lucky goal, but I’ll take it,” Bougherra says now, two weeks before he leads Algeria at their second successive finals. “At that stage, you don’t care how you play, you just need to win. That’s it. We needed a win to qualify and it was a very tough game – both teams could not play football because there was too much pressure.”
The relief was palpable. Algeria had finished top of their group in the second round of African qualifying, winning five of six matches. Yet the play-off draw provided a tricky tie against Burkina Faso, runners-up at that year’s Africa Cup of Nations. Algeria had been embarrassed at that tournament, and the country demanded redemption.
So the 2014 World Cup meant everything. In the months since, Bougherra has relived and recalled that clinching goal a thousand times, continually reminded how the remainder of that second leg felt like the most fraught in Algeria’s history.
“Too much stress,” Bougherra says. “In the last minute, they had a corner and the ball hit the post, and all the fans stopped breathing. But this is part of football – Algeria always wins like this.”
They hope for more victories, however tense, in Brazil. It will be a difficult assignment, given that Algeria have been placed in Group H with everyone’s dark horses, Belgium, and World Cup stalwarts in Russia and South Korea.
In contrast, Algeria have been to three finals – 1982, 1986 and 2010 – and never advanced from the group. In South Africa four years ago, they suffered two defeats and drew with England to finish bottom of their group. The hurt from that campaign remains.
“In the last World Cup, we were not afraid, but we didn’t know this competition,” Bougherra says. “We were thinking the World Cup is very, very hard; too hard. But this is normal when you’ve never been there.
“But when you have been, and played in these games, you say, ‘Wow, OK, this is the biggest competition in the world, but they’re still the same players. We all have two legs and two hands. Of course, some players are more talented, but we can show something’.”
This Algeria carries its own particular talent. There is World Cup experience in Bougherra, Getafe’s Medhi Lacen, Olympiakos striker Rafik Djebbour and Hassan Yebda, the midfielder on loan at Udinese. Sofiane Feghouli, Valencia’s attacking midfielder, heads an exciting new generation of French-born Algerians, part of Halilhodzic’s remit when he took over as coach in 2011.
A hard-nosed Bosnian, well-travelled and well-schooled, while on the road to this World Cup, he has planned beyond Brazil, too. Bougherra calls him a “perfectionist”. Under Halilhodzic’s tenure, a batch of emergent stars have been provided a platform: Nabil Bentaleb, the Tottenham Hotspur midfielder, Sporting Lisbon’s prolific Islam Slimani and the Dinamo Zagreb striker El Hilal Soudani. Bougherra is confident in their ability but, as he said, the World Cup is a different beast.
“I want them to play like they do for their clubs,” he says. “We’re in a difficult group, which is better for us as we have nothing to lose. We can only give everything, no regrets, play our football.
“If we stay this way, with no pressure and remain disciplined, tactically, then I’m confident. And if we lose, many people will say it’s normal. But we want to make a big surprise.”
The No 1 target is to escape the group, to “show the world that Algerian football has improved”. The country’s supporters insist upon it. As captain, Bougherra may wear that burden more than most, but it is something he relishes. The opening match, against Belgium at Belo Horizonte’s Estadio Mineirao on June 17, cannot come soon enough.
“I’m going to be very excited; inside I will have many emotions,” Bougherra says. “When you have the Algeria national anthem in that opening game, and you know all the world is watching, inside it’s going to be like a fire. This is why we play football, to have that moment.
“In Algeria, football is everything. To be at the World Cup is something for the fans to be proud of, to see the Algerian flag in the best 32 in the world. The most important thing for them is to sweat for the T-shirt. When you do that, and play with your heart, it doesn’t matter if you win or lose the game. After this, they respect you.”
Algeria are not playing only for their country, though. They are the Arab world’s sole entrant in Brazil, a responsibility they do not shun. As if the pressure was not enough.
“We understand it,” says Bougherra, who comprehends more than most, since he plays his club football in Qatar, with Lekhwiya. “We have to represent all the Arab countries well, so on the pitch we must show an example of fair play, give a good image. We must show that Arabic players have real quality.
“In football, everything is possible. When you want, you can. I hope we’ll be concentrated and will arrive in a good moment. We need to be ready.
“Before is not the time, though, the time is the day in which you are living. This is the secret.”
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