Djamel Belmadi, the Algerian manager ‘more popular than the president’

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  • Djamel Belmadi
    Algerian association football player and manager

Djamel Belmadi has enjoyed barnstorming success since he became Algeria manager in 2018, lifting the Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) trophy in 2019 as part of a magnificent run of 33 consecutive matches unbeaten. Belmadi has become an icon in politically troubled Algeria – so expectations are sky high as they travel to Cameroon for this year’s CAN.

Algeria were at a low ebb when Belmadi took over in September 2018. After reaching their zenith by getting into the last 16 at the 2014 World Cup, they plunged into turmoil – going through six managers in five years and crashing out of CAN-2017 at the group stage.

Belmadi came in and restored order. “He changed the state of mind; there were lot of dressing room issues before he arrived – so he dismissed players who thought they were indispensable and reinvigorated the squad with previously overlooked talent,” Mehdi Dahak, publication director of DZfoot, a site specialising in Algerian football, told FRANCE 24.

“For example, [Qatar Sports Club’s] Djamel Benlamri has become crucial at centre-back; Youcef Belaili [who also plays at Qatar Sports Club] has had some missteps in his career but he’s the team’s attacking powerhouse. [Manchester City star] Riyadh Mahrez can score at any time but Belaili is the real powerhouse.”

Ex-Marseille player Belmadi soon imposed his principles of rigour, frankness and discipline on Algeria – the national team he chose over France after being brought up by Algerian parents in the Paris exurb of Champigny-sur-Marne.

“It was quite a choice to opt for Algeria at that point,” Dahak said. “In the early 2000s few Franco-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 few players to plump for an African team.”

“He asks the same of his players now – you can’t be half in and half out. That’s why when [Nice striker] Andy Delort prioritised his club over CAN, Belmadi wasn’t having any of it.”

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

Yet Belmadi developed a reputation for a tempestuous temperament thanks to two incidents in March 2001 – first when he threw away his Algeria shirt in reaction to being substituted during a crushing defeat against Egypt; secondly when he threw his trainers at Marseille fans in the stands as they expressed anger over the club’s sinking form.

Belmadi reinvented himself as a manager soon after retirement – launching his coaching career in Qatar, a major site of growth for football over the past decade and a particular incubator of Algerian talent. He started at Lekhwiya (since renamed Al-Duhail) from 2010 to 2012. The following two years Belmadi managed Qatar B before graduating to the Qatari national team in 2014.

He soon became an authoritative presence: “Very friendly with his players off the pitch, but not so chummy when they’re out there playing,” as Dahak characterised his approach.

‘A double-edged sword’

Belmadi worked wonders by running a similarly tight ship once he ascended to the Algeria role in 2018. “He’s professional and demanding and he doesn’t let anything go,” Dehak said – even if he has “calmed down a bit” since his playing career.

Algeria brought home the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations after triumphing over 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 have continued with their rampant success – stringing together that record of 33 games unvanquished. Not only are they fancied to win CAN again in Cameroon, Algeria have entered the third round of the 2022 Qatar World Cup qualifiers in sparkling form. Performing well at the World Cup is Belmadi’s “real objective”, Dahak said.

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

Indeed, Belmadi has further endeared himself to much of the Algerian population by supporting the hirak, the popular movement that has striven since 2019 to displace what they call le pouvoir (the power) – a murky nexus of politicians, government officials, businessmen and military figures which, they say, has long ruled Algeria to its own advantage.

As for the football, Algeria have an “incredible dynamic” in their favour, 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 the favourite.”

As they went to Egypt for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, Belmadi was keen to play down expectations so that any Algerian success came as a positive surprise – an approach he pulled off, to say the least. But this time, there’s no chance of using that strategy on Algerian football fans as they anticipate a continuation of their team’s unfaltering form.

This article was adapted from the original in French.

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