Riyad Mahrez: North Africa’s New Dawn

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 06: Riyad Mahrez of Leicester City celebrates scoring his team's second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Leicester City at the Etihad Stadium on February 6, 2016 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – 6 FEBRUARY: Riyad Mahrez of Leicester City celebrates scoring his team’s second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Leicester City at the Etihad Stadium on February 6, 2016 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

The emergence of Riyad Mahrez as one of the Premier League’s players of the season has received a lot of attention this year. The Algerian winger took part in the 2014 World Cup, where his national team did very well, reaching the second round at the expense of Russia and South Korea, before giving the Germans a good run for their money in the round of 16.

That was the first time the Algerians had ever made it to the second round at the World Cup, on their fourth attempt. On their debut in 1982 they looked certain to go through a tough group, containing Germany, Austria and Chile, after a famous victory over the Germans, the reigning European champions, and drawing another. Sadly, a few days later on the same pitch as the Germany game, Gijon’s El Molinon, the two European sides played out one of the most infamous games in World Cup history, seemingly agreeing on a single-goal German victory, which would put them both through to the second round and send the Desert Foxes home.

Media and fans all over the world, including in Germany and Austria, were aghast, but neither that, nor the fact that they were officially the highest ranked team out of the 12 teams that failed to progress from the main round (that 13th place was also one above their final ranking in 2014), could comfort the Algerians. North Africa would have to wait another four years for one of its teams to get through the group phase, the crowning achievement of the Maghreb’s first age of glory, which lasted nearly a decade.

It all began in mid-seventies Tunisia, when their former star player Abdelmajid Chetali took up the duty of national team manager.

They managed to finally beat their nemesis and local rivals Morocco in the first qualifying round for the 1978 World Cup. The Moroccans were the first team to fully represent Africa on the world stage after the mid-sixties strike by all CAF members forced FIFA into giving the second largest continent one spot at the 1970 World Cup. Before that the African sides had to endure prolonged intercontinental qualifiers, with their only success being Egypt overcoming of Palestine on the road to the 1934 World Cup.

The Moroccans have thwarted Tunisian hopes twice and in the most dramatic manner, by winning the coin toss after three undecided games in 1961 (only to be knocked out by Spain in the play-offs), and then again eight years later, surviving the third leg in Marseilles. By the time they met again in early 1977 the rules had changed. Instead of a third leg on neutral ground, penalties would decide the winner if the teams were in equal after two legs, and of course that was exactly what happened. The Tunisians prevailed, sending them en route to Argentina.

A couple of convincing home wins were enough to dispatch Algeria and Guinea, and earn Tunisia a place in the final qualifying round. After a fine win over the Nigerians in Lagos it all went down to a single game. The mighty Egyptians beat Tunisia in Cairo, but on 11 December they stood no chance. There was a header, then a defensive error followed by a simple rebound and finally a beautiful spell of team play. The Eagles of Carthage were 4-0 up with 15 minutes to go. Mokhtar Dhouib scored the consolation goal, but it didn’t stop Tunisia from getting to their maiden World Cup.

Three months later, during the African Nations Cup match against Nigeria, they left the pitch protesting the refereeing. It earned them a temporary FIFA ban, but it was lifted in time for the World Cup began. They were placed in Rosario, where nine years later a certain bloke called Lionel was born, together with West Germany, Poland and Mexico. The Hugo Sanchez led Mexican side was their first opponent and despite being down at half time to a penalty, Chetali’s boys didn’t feel like surrendering. What followed were the finest 45 minutes in Tarak Dhiab’s career. The 24-year-old, who was the reigning African Player of the Year, provided three assists to earn himself the resounding nickname the “Tunisian Michel Platini”.

That was the first ever World Cup win by an African side, but the Eagles of Carthage were not done.

They lost to Poland, felled by a single goal from Lato, before holding the current World Cup holders to a goalless draw. Their battling display combined with flair was the sign of things to come from the Maghreb over the following eight years.

By 1982 the World Cup had grown in size to 24 teams, giving Africa second berth, in accordance with Joao de Havelange’s promise before the 1974 FIFA elections. The Tunisians were knocked out in the first round by Nigeria, but they would later be revenged by another Maghreb team. Algeria followed the example set by their eastern neighbours, with convincing home wins eliminating Sierra Leone, Sudan and Niger. In their final qualifying round they easily beat Nigeria both home and away to earn their debut on the world stage.

The Desert Foxes were an interesting bunch, consisting entirely of homegrown players (most of them still played in the Algerian League at the time), a complete contrast with their current squad. Their top two stars were Lakhdar Belloumi, a top-class playmaker who scored five in the qualifiers, including two against Nigeria, Rabah Madjer, who would go on to be a star player for Porto and scorer of one of the greatest goals in a Champions Cup final ever, and Mustapha Thaleb, PSG’s top scorer up for thirty years, until Zlatan surpassed him.

MONACO - OCTOBER 10:  Football legend Rabah Madjer and World Champions Club President Antonio Caliendo attend the Golden Foot Ceremony Awards on October 10, 2011 in Monaco, Monaco.  (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images for Golden Foot)
MONACO – 10 OCTOBER: Football legend Rabah Madjer and World Champions Club President Antonio Caliendo attend the Golden Foot Ceremony Awards on 10 October 2011 in Monaco, Monaco. (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images for Golden Foot)

The Algerians copied their neighbours once again when they managed to win their first ever World Cup game, but what a game it was. The Germans were expecting an easy win, even announcing it to the press, but by that time they should have realised that North African football does not suit them (even the Moroccans’ finest hour in their winless 1970 debut was the lead they held against Germany for more than half an hour).

After a goalless first half the Desert Foxes struck first, with Madjer scoring ten minutes after the restart. When Rummenigge got the equaliser half way through the second half, no one was expecting that the Germans’ wouldn’t touch the ball again until the kick-off after conceding. The Algerian strike was swift – it took them eight passes and 23 seconds to create space for Salah Assad to cross from the left and Belloumi did the rest. It was almost a carbon copy of the German goal and it was enough for a famous win.

The high-flying Africans were quickly brought back down by Austria, who beat them 2-0 in their second game, but the group was still wide open. In what turned out to be their last appearance in Spain it took them 35 minutes to take a 3-0 lead against Chile, but the South Americans managed to get as close as 3-2 at the end. Then a day later the Alpine neighbours met at Gijon, knowing that a one-goal German win would put both sides through. Horst Hrubesch scored within ten minutes and the game was as good as over.

The bizarre scenes that ensued were not enough for FIFA to punish the Germans and the Austrians, but it convinced them to change the rules. From then on the final game of the group stage at the World Cup has been played simultaneously. Was it a consolation for the brave Algerians? To quote Belloumi:

“Our performances forced FIFA to make that change, and that was even better than a victory. It meant that Algeria left an indelible mark on football history.”

They would get to the next World Cup as well, after a brilliant campaign (five wins and a draw, goal difference 13-3) , but it was not the same. By 1986 most of their key players were already earning their wages in Europe (except for Belloumi, who rejected many offers in order to stay at home throughout his career). They managed a draw against Northern Ireland, then lost to Brazil, before being convincingly beaten by Spain, to end 22nd of the 24 participants.

So it was left to the Moroccans to go one step further than both their neighbours and become Africa’s first team to get through the group stage at the World Cup. The only previous nation from outside Europe and the Americas to manage that was North Korea in 1966. Their road to Mexico was just as convincing: after seven consecutive clean sheets they were beaten in the away leg of the final round, but Libya’s single goal win was no match for the 3-0 triumph for Jose Faria’s team in Rabat.

The Atlas Lions were given a tough group, with three European sides, but they managed to remain unbeaten after keeping clean sheets in their first two games against Poland and England.

Their third game of the tournament against Portugal was the decisive one, and it was clear that a draw would suit both teams. But the Portuguese team was in complete turmoil at the time, since their players refused to train after undergoing a series of PR and organisational disasters. That gave a 23-year-old Abderrazak Khairi the perfect opportunity for his seven minutes of fame, when half way through the first half he struck twice to give the Moroccans a convincing lead. Later on Merry Krimau, a seasoned professional who spent 15 years in the French top division, scored the third, before the sub Diamantino pulled one back close to the end.

The Atlas Lions won group F, but the unexpected outcome in group E, where Germany was pushed into the second place by Denmark, meant that for the fourth time in a row a Maghreb team would face the Germans in the World Cup. The day belonged to the Moroccan keeper Ezzaki Badou Zaki, who produced a string of magnificent saves that kept frustrating the Germans throughout the game.

Zaki is remembered as one of the greatest goalkeepers to come from Africa, but he also became famous for failing at the last hurdle, after losing two African Champions League finals, one African Nations Cup final and a Copa del Rey final while with Mallorca. No wonder then that only three minutes from time he was beaten by a trademark Lothar Matthaus free-kick from 35 yards.

That round of 16 game ended the golden age of football in the Maghreb countries. From then on all three teams would get back to the World Cup, but fail to leave their mark up until 2014.

The Moroccans played twice more, winning a single game against Scotland in 1998, but it wasn’t enough to progress to the second round.

Tunisia played in three consecutive World Cups from 1998 to 2006, but failed to win a single game, earning a draw in each of them. Algeria’s football suffered during the long civil war in the nineties and it took them 24 years to get back to the world stage, but they managed to win a single point in 2010. Their performance in Brazil 2014, however, offers hope to the Maghreb fans that a new golden age is near.

The team structure in all three nations has changed a lot. Unlike the post-independence teams, which consisted of players born and raised in their own country, many of their current players are born in the Parisian suburbs or elsewhere in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Their desire to play for their country of origin is understandable, but in many cases it’s more of a case of not being able to get into the national team of their country of birth.

The likes of Zidane, Trezeguet, Fekir and Nasri are of Algerian descent. Ben Arfa, Khedira and Rekik all have fathers born in Tunisia, while Fellaini, El Ghazi, Affelay, Bakkali and Chadli could have chosen to play for Morocco. They all decided to represent France, Germany, Belgium or the Netherlands.

Convincing some of the top class players raised in Europe to change allegiance might be the quickest way to glory, but it seems that Algeria has shown that it can be done by drawing on home-grown resources.

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