In international football’s continental tournaments, many viewers tune in as little more than intrigued neutrals. For some, that’s perfectly satisfactory; the simple pleasures of watching two teams trying to score a goal without the crippling tension of partisanship a pleasant novelty.
But, rarely is anyone a true neutral. Uninvolved onlookers will probably still have their favourites, even if only borne out of hazy nostalgia or a connection with a specific club or player. For others, the tournament unfolding will create preferences, perhaps thanks to something as ultimately inconsequential as a great goal or an amusing celebration.
It’s little wonder people forge these sentimental links, however tenuous. Sport is just more fun when you care.
At the African Cup of Nations, this month, this phenomenon will manifest itself once again. Only this time, many foreign fans will head in knowing exactly who to support. Not since they last hosted the tournament a quarter-of-a-century ago have Algeria won the African Cup of Nations, but after their brilliant heroics under the global spotlight at last summer’s World Cup in Brazil, the Fennec Foxes will doubtless be cheered on by people who’ve never set foot on the continent, let alone the country.
The World Cup’s group stage was an utterly encapsulating affair. It was unpredictable and oddly open, quite unlike the international tournament phoney wars we’ve come to expect. But it wasn’t the traditional giants that were hogging the narrative. Instead it was the underdogs. And the neutrals love nothing more than an underdog. A disastrous 2013 AFCON campaign meant that Algeria fell into this category, and headed to Brazil accompanied by a cacophony of condescending voices confidently predicting an early exit.
Vahid HalilhodÅ¾iÄ‡’s side may have had ambitions loftier than being the tournament’s plucky losers, though their World Cup opener against Belgium did little to suggest they’d be anything else. They took the lead in the first half, but after the restart, their opponents gained all of the momentum. The sucker-punch came when Marouane Fellaini equalised with 20 minutes left; the knockout blow when Dries Mertens lashed a stunning winner into the roof of the net 10 minutes later. It was about as plucky as losses come.
But if Algeria’s first match earned the sympathy of onlookers around the world, the subsequent couple turned them into flag-waving, face-paint-wearing, fennec-fox-adoring supporters.
In their second game, Algeria faced one of the weakest sides in the entire tournament. South Korea had a defence as sturdy as a house of cards, and boy did HalilhodÅ¾iÄ‡ know it. His side threw caution to the wind, winning 4-2 and becoming the first African team to ever score four goals in a World Cup match in the process. The win gave them the confidence they needed to earn a draw with Russia in the nerviest of nervy games a few days later, and Algeria were through into the knockout stages. From Algiers to Paris, London and beyond, there was jubilation.
Simply getting beyond the group stages was more than a vindication of HalilhodÅ¾iÄ‡’s management. The Bosnian could very easily have been sacked after overseeing Algeria’s group stage AFCON exit, though his bosses held fire. And they were right to. He had been overseeing a gradual but radical transition to a veritable golden generation of young Algerian footballers. Among those who made the ill-fated trip to South Africa were the uncapped 21-year-old full-back Faouzi Ghoulam; 23-year-old wonderkid winger Sofiane Feghouli; centre-back Essaïd Belkalem and striker Islam Slimani, both 24. Little over a year later, they were all part of the squad making big noises in Brazil.
Aside from being young, Algeria were also incredibly watchable. On the touchline, HalilhodÅ¾iÄ‡ cut a stern figure. In press conferences, he was even spikier. He didn’t exactly exude the playful pontificating of his contemporaries. However, after he let his side off their leash on the back of their opening defeat to Belgium, they were clinical, counter-attacking brilliance. Algeria remained more than happy to let their opponents see the ball, safe in the knowledge that after winning it back, they could cause big problems with the precision of their passing and the pace of their attack.
By the time the knockout stages came around, all eyes were on Algeria. Their second round match against Germany was a journalist’s dream: the North Africans’ greatest ever win had come in the World Cup against West Germany in 1982, though the Europeans still progressed at their expense after cynically colluding with neighbours Austria . But aside from its bitter history, it was a game that could easily be boiled down to classic media stereotypes. It was HalilhodÅ¾iÄ‡’s spirited outsiders against Joachim Löw’s icy collection of industrial footballing automatons. For a few days, the fennec fox became the mascot of the rest of the world.
In the nature of a Shakespearean tragedy, Algeria saved their best performance for the game against Germany, running themselves — and, notably, Germany’s sweeper-keeper Manuel Neuer — into the ground. Alas, after squandering a series of chances, they eventually conceded twice in extra-time, a last-gasp goal from Abdelmoumene Djabou proving nothing more than a consolation. At the final whistle, HalilhodÅ¾iÄ‡’s dour mask slipped as he wept while embracing his players — one of the most vivid memories of the entire tournament. He wasn’t only mourning the end of his side’s World Cup fairytale, but his own tenure.
Alongside his players, HalilhodÅ¾iÄ‡ received a hero’s welcome back in the national capital. They toured Algiers in an open-top bus — a symbol more often associated with a tournament winner than one eliminated in the second round, such was the magnitude of their achievement. But despite the great reception (and a plea from president Abdelaziz Bouteflika) HalilhodÅ¾iÄ‡ had made up his mind. He was going out on a high.
Heading into this AFCON, HalilhodÅ¾iÄ‡’s influence still looms large over Algeria. The young players that he brought through the ranks are now forming a key part of the starting lineup of his replacement, Christian Gourcuff. But, more broadly, a continuation of the youth movement the Bosnian started is anticipated under the new manager, whose impressive track record of spotting and moulding future stars in a decade at France’s middling outfit Lorient would, one imagines, have played a role in his appointment. On the face of things, he looks capable of picking up exactly where his predecessor had left off.
Happily, he hasn’t disappointed so far. Algeria won five of their six matches en route to comfortably booking an AFCON place under Gourcuff, with much continuity in the squad from HalilhodÅ¾iÄ‡’s tenure. But despite some similarities, there are also ways in which the pair couldn’t be more different. The shapeshifting cautiousness of HalilhodÅ¾iÄ‡ has been replaced with a considerably more proactive, attacking appoach. The focus is less on how to stop the opponent and more on how to harm them; the pragmatist having been replaced by the philosopher.
Gourcuff may be stubborn, but he certainly isn’t a dinosaur. When in full flow, his team is a brilliant attacking force. Algeria’s talented full-backs — Ghoulam and Aïssa Mandi — are given the freedom to fly forward on the overlap, while attacking midfielder Brahimi buzzes around behind the team’s physical centre-forward, Islam Slimani. If they can’t find an immediate way through to goal, they’re quite happy to patiently probe across the midfield, having comfortably dominated possession in most of their games under the Frenchman. The inevitable downside is that affording players such freedom can cause defensive problems, but Gourcuff is more concerned with making sure his team look to dominate.
The bad news for Algeria is that they’re now serious contenders, and their opponents know it. Their recent performances on the biggest of stages has ensured they’re marked men, long since stripped of their underdog tag. However, that won’t stop them being cheered on from all corners of the globe when they kick off their campaign against South Africa next Monday.
Their run to the knockout stages in Brazil isn’t far beind Roger Milla’s jubilant dancing around the corner flags of Italia ’90 or Asamoah Gyan’s heartbreaking penalty miss against Uruguay in 2010 as a brilliantly evocative image of international footballing history; the emotion of that night in Porto Alegre gradually petrifying into a wistful sentimentality for a team and nation in whose World Cup dream so many invested. And who could stay neutral after that?
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