Why do Algeria make it so hard for themselves? They have been the best team at this Cup of Nations, and in that sense were worthy champions. But having taken an early lead against Senegal in Friday’s final and seeming dominant, they bafflingly resorted to spoiling, to diving, feigning injury and looking to pressure the officials. It brought victory, and perhaps that is enough, but play and they might have taken not only the cup but also glory.
It is not just that the niggliness makes them a hard team for outsiders to love; it presumably also means that no Algerian fan can take much pleasure in watching a rerun of what should be one of the finest moments in their history. See how Baghdad Bounedjah spreads his arms and screams at the referee! Watch as Amir Bensebaini trips a Senegal forward! Wonder as Raïs Mbohli runs down the clock! Marvel as Sofiane Feghouli recovers instantly from seemingly mortal injury! Welcome to the shithouse of fun!
Algeria claim second Afcon title after Bounedjah’s lucky strike sinks Senegal
And what makes their approach all the more frustrating is that Algeria in this tournament have shown flashes of excellence. They are an extremely good side, an effective blend of technical ability and muscle, arguably the best champions since Egypt completed their run of three Cups of Nations in a row in 2010. But all that is undermined by the way they lapse so habitually into needle. The evidence of the opening 10 minutes, and the group game between the sides, was that in an open contest Algeria would probably have won relatively comfortably. As it was, they let Senegal into the game and ended up scrambling to victory, not waving but brawling.
Perhaps they simply wanted this too much, their desperation for victory a mix of the 29-year wait since their only previous success in the tournament and a hard-to-define desire to honour the spirit of the Hirak, the pro-democracy protests that broke out in Algeria in February and toppled the president Abdelaziz Bouteflika two months later. In that context there was something hugely moving about the celebrations at the end, as Algeria’s players rushed to the thousands of their fans who had gathered behind the goal at the south end of the stadium – many hundreds more, despite having tickets, somehow ended up locked out despite sections of the stadium being empty.
But still the reluctance actually to play was deleterious to both Algeria’s chance of winning and the spectacle. As a result, this feels for African football like a time without giants. Looking back, perhaps the oddity is not what is happening now but what happened in the first decade of this century, when Winfried Schäfer’s powerful and well-organised Cameroon retained the title and then Hassan Shehata’s tough and skilful Egypt won their hat-trick. Perhaps Algeria will go on and, more confident in their status, establish a dynasty.
Certainly Djamel Belmadi cuts an impressive figure as coach and deserves great credit for the way, for instance, his side closed down the space available to Nigeria’s wingers in the semi-final. Yet even then they fell in the second half to self-doubt and spoiling and won a game they had controlled for long periods with only Riyad Mahrez’s last-gasp free-kick.
But the sense in the past decade of Cups of Nations has been of one-off triumphs: Zambia’s emotional fairy-tale in Libreville in 2012; Nigeria finally coming together under Stephen Keshi in 2013; Ivory Coast’s golden generation, long past their best, at last making good on their talent in 2015; Cameroon grinding their way to success two years ago.
If there is a trend that defines this era, it is that of tactical modernisation. Some of the criticism of Gernot Rohr from sections of the Nigerian media for supposedly not playing in the right way has felt anachronistic. More telling was the comment of the defender Kenneth Omeruo, a veteran of 2013, that this side differed from Keshi’s team in “knowing everything about their opponents”. Keshi was a great motivator, a big enough personality to shield his team from outside pressures and mould them into a unified side; Rohr instilled a level of tactical cohesion and flexibility, although that may not be enough to keep him in the job.
Senegal 0-1 Algeria: Africa Cup of Nations 2019 final – as it happened
Belmadi and the Senegal coach Aliou Cissé, similarly, have created obviously modern sides, teams that press and play with fluidity, interchanging position frequently. But what was striking was that was true also of smaller nations, most notably Madagascar under Nicolas Dupuis, who played with remarkable verve and fluency. Their progress to the quarter-final was a lot more enjoyable than that of Benin, grimly packing men behind the ball as Michel Dussuyer sides always do.
Algeria were the best side in Egypt and the best exemplars of that rising trend. This was a deserved triumph and one that has the potential to be the start of an era. They blend the skill of Mahrez and Youcef Belaili with the resolve and defensive excellence of Aissa Mandi and Djamel Benlamri. They press and they interchange with elan. They also have the capacity to win ugly. The problem is that that is the way they seem to prefer it.