Djamel Belmadi, the Algerian manager “more popular than the president”

Djamel Belmadi has enjoyed child-storming successes since becoming Algeria’s coach in 2018, lifting the Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) trophy in 2019 as part of a magnificent series of 33 consecutive unbeaten matches. Belmadi has become an icon in the politically troubled Algeria – so expectations are sky high when they travel to Cameroon for this year’s CAN.

Algeria was at a low level when Belmadi took over in September 2018. After reaching their zenith by reaching the last 16 of the 2014 World Cup, they plunged into chaos – went through six managers in five years and crashed out of CAN-2017 at . the group game.

Belmadi came in and restored order. “He changed his state of mind; “There were a lot of dressing problems before he came – so he dismissed players who thought they were indispensable and gave new life to the squad with previously overlooked talent”, says Mehdi Dahak, publishing manager for DZfoot, a site specializing in Algerian football, to FRANCE 24.

“For example, [Qatar Sports Club’s] Djamel Benlamri has become crucial as a midfielder; Youcef Belaili [who also plays at Qatar Sports Club] has made some mistakes in his career but he is the team’s powerhouse for attack. [Manchester City star] Riyadh Mahrez can score at any time, but Belaili is the real powerhouse. ”

Ex-Marseille player Belmadi soon imposed on Algeria his principles of rigor, sincerity and discipline – the national team he chose over France after being raised by Algerian parents in the Paris suburb of Champigny-sur-Marne.

“It was a pretty good choice to choose Algeria at that time,” Dahak said. “In the early 2000s, few French-Algerian players chose Algeria. Relations between the Confederation of African Football (CAF), the clubs and the players were even worse than they are now. Belmadi was one of the few players who was full for an African team. ”

“He asks the same of his players now – you can not be half in and half out. That is why when [Nice striker] Andy Delort prioritized his club over CAN, Belmadi had none of that. ”

Belmadi started as a PSG midfielder in the mid-1990s, but only made an appearance for the Parisians in one season. The peak of his playing career was a period in Marseille from 1999 to 2003, as a tactically astute offensive midfielder with a delicate touch on the ball.

Still, Belmadi developed a reputation for a stormy temper thanks to two incidents in March 2001 – only when he threw away his Algerian shirt in response to being replaced during a crushing defeat against Egypt; secondly, when he threw his coaches at Marseille fans in the stands when they expressed anger over the club’s declining form.

Belmadi reinvented himself as a manager shortly after retirement – and started his coaching career in Qatar, an important place for football development over the past decade and a special incubator for Algerian talent. He started at Lekhwiya (then renamed Al-Duhail) from 2010 to 2012. For the next two years, Belmadi managed Qatar B before graduating from Qatar’s national team in 2014.

He soon became an authoritative presence: “Very friendly with his players off the field, but not so kind when they are out playing”, as Dahak characterized his approach.

“A double-edged sword”

Belmadi did wonders by driving an equally tight ship when he stepped up to the role in Algeria in 2018. “He is professional and demanding and he releases nothing,” said Dehak – although he has been “piled down a bit” since playing his career.

Algeria took home the Africa Cup of Nations 2019 after defeating Senegal 1-0 in the final – the team of Aliou Cissé, who, as fate would have it, grew up a few miles from Belmadi in Champigny-sur-Marne.

Since then, Algeria has continued with its rampant success – strictly breaking the record with 33 unbeaten matches. Not only are they set to win the CAN again in Cameroon, Algeria has entered the third round of the Qatar World Cup qualifier 2022 in sparkling form. Performing well in the World Cup is Belmadi’s “real goal”, said Dahak.

“Everything is going so well for Belmadi,” Dahak continued. “He’s more popular than the president [Abdelmadjid Tebboune]. ”

In fact, Belmadi has further loved himself for a large part of the Algerian population by supporting hirak, the popular movement that since 2019 has sought to displace what they call le pouvoir (power) – a murky link between politicians, government officials, businessmen and military figures who, they say, have long ruled Algeria to their own advantage.

When it comes to football, Algeria has an “incredible dynamic” to its advantage, Dahak pointed out. But he warned that high expectations are a “double-edged sword”.

“Algeria is likely to be its own worst enemy in Cameroon – it’s hard to go into a tournament as a favorite.”

When they went to Egypt for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, Belmadi was keen to tone down expectations so that all Algerian successes came as a positive surprise – an approach he took, to say the least. But this time, there is no chance of using that strategy on Algerian football fans because they expect a continuation of the team’s unchanging form.

This article has been adapted from the original in French.

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