The Desert Foxes, on the cusp of advancement, hope to make amends for World Cups past
The stadium’s gates opened at 12:30 p.m., seven hours before kickoff. Traffic was dense around Algiers’s Stade 5 Juillet 1962 long before, as ticketless fans arrived as early as dawn, hoping to figure out a way in, somehow, even though the match had sold out in six hours a week earlier.
A kindly old gent from the Algerian soccer federation advised me not to wear my press pass on the short walk from its headquarters to the vast old arena, lest one of the bereft should rip it from my neck and use it as their golden ticket.
Estimates put the attendance inside the 66,000-capacity venue at anywhere between 70,000 and 100,000. Young fans threw firecrackers and scaled walls. If they slipped from their perches at the top of the stands it could’ve meant death.
Over and over the crowd bellowed their chant of choice, “One, Two, Three, Viva L’Algerie!” and visiting players were so awed by the atmosphere that they captured images on their camera phones before kickoff.
Other than the scoreline—a 3–0 win for Serbia in a mere friendly two months before the 2010 World Cup—there was no hint of the trauma and tedium to come for Les Fennecs, the Desert Foxes, when they crossed the continent to play in South Africa. Three games, one point (against England), no goals. Those fanatical expectations ebbed only to be replaced with acidic recriminations. (I saw a player scuffle with a female journalist while I waited in the mixed zone after Algeria were dramatically knocked out of the tournament by Landon Donovan and the United States.)
That was 2010, when we were intrigued to have rarities like Algeria, New Zealand, and North Korea at the tournament, but mostly relieved they went home early after contributing little on the field except novelty value. But this is 2014, when Algeria gamely lost 2–1 to Belgium then delivered one of the most sparkling halves of this remarkable tournament, going up 3–0 on South Korea after just 38 minutes and finally prevailing 4–2.
Putting aside their FIFA rank as Africa’s top team heading into the tournament, Vahid Halihodzic’s men, like Costa Rica, are proof that in Brazil even the underdogs have bite and that the tactical mindset has shifted from containment to creativity, regardless of a nation’s size or reputation. (Well, for the most part: There’s still Greece!)
The win against South Korea was Algeria’s first at a World Cup since 1982, when they beat West Germany and Chile but were famously done in by a German-Austrian “fix” in the last group game. Now they are not only on the brink of qualification for the second round, they are close to doing so at the expense of Fabio Capello’s Russia, the 2018 hosts.
A point against Russia on Thursday in Curitiba will almost certainly be enough to deliver the progression that fans and media not only crave, but demand. Suddenly those expectations do not seem so unreasonable. It would be too facile to say they are about to right the wrongs of 1982, but Algeria are surely set to make amends for 2010. In fact, they already have.