When Djamel Belmadi declared, almost a year ago upon his appointment as Algeria coach, that his goal was to win the African Cup of Nations, hardly anyone took him seriously.
The North African country’s football team had just seen off its sixth manager in little over two years, and though it had a few individual talents here and there, such as Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez or FC Porto’s Yacine Brahimi, the team, on the whole, was in shambles.
“For years, we saw the same players, always the same names, same performances and results and we just kept changing coaches,” says Algerian sports journalist Walid Ziani.
“Belmadi came in and wasn’t afraid to shake things up,” added Ziani.
Belmadi’s gamble could pay big dividends on Friday when Algeria will attempt to put an end to a 29-year dry spell at the continent’s most prestigious football tournament when they take on Senegal in the final.
Belmadi’s new philosophy
Before the start of the tournament in Egypt, Algeria’s football-crazed supporters were hopeful that their team, the Desert Foxes, would perform better than they had in previous editions of the competition – but few expected them to make it this far in the tournament.
In fact, Belmadi’s men scored more goals than any other team and conceded none throughout the first four games of the tournament.
That is a big achievement considering that the Algerians managed to secure a total of six wins in 27 African Cup appearances between 2000 and 2017.
One of Belmadi’s first moves after taking the reigns of the Algeria team was to drop some of its key players.
“He gave a chance to homegrown players like Youcef Belaili and Djamel Benlamri,” Ziani continued, referring to previous coaches’ habit of resorting primarily to French-born Algerian players to fill the team’s ranks.
Whereas individual skills trumped in the pre-Belmadi era, a new philosophy developed under the 43-year-old: Everyone, including the team’s strikers, should work hard and defend.
“Tactically, we work on a lot more,” star playmaker Mahrez said at a press conference earlier in the tournament. “Coach Belmadi insists on tactics a lot and he uses the right words to motivate us.”
For Usher Komugisha, a Ugandan sports journalist, the fact that Belmadi is a former Algerian international player helps explain – at least in part – the team’s high-cohesion level.
“It is small things like cracking an Algerian joke in the dressing room before a game, singing an “old school” song or eating traditional food … on an off-day, that keeps the team together,” she said.
Defensive midfielder Adlene Guedioura put it in slightly different terms.
“The coach really knows the players and what he wants. He knows how to listen to us. That’s important because if you don’t have a good cook [then] you won’t get a good dish,” the Nottingham Forest player said.
‘Lions of Teranga’
Throughout the tournament, Belmadi could often be seen crisscrossing the touchline – sometimes drawing the referee’s ire for stepping into the field – and giving instructions to his players.
If he is seen as a combative figure who wears his heart on his sleeve, then the managerial style of his opponent at Friday’s final, Senegalese coach Aliou Cisse, could not be more different.
Despite growing up in the same Parisian suburb as Belmadi, and coincidently being born a day earlier, Cisse has built a reputation as a levelheaded tactician who gets most of the communication done behind closed doors.
Where Cisse is more outspoken, however, is in what appears to be his firm belief that Senegal will clinch its first continental trophy.
The only other time the Lions of Teranga made it to the final of the African Cup of Nations was in 2002, when they faced Cameroon in the Malian capital, Bamako.
“Let’s not forget that I was one of the players who missed their shot,” Cisse recently told reporters, referring to the dramatic 3-2 penalty shoot-out that saw Cameroon crowned African champions for a fourth time.
“So I told myself that my objective will be to become a coach and take Senegal to the final again.”
But Cisse also belongs to the country’s “golden generation” that a few months later went on to take part in the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan and write history.
Not only did Senegal beat reigning world champions France in their opening match, but they also made it to the quarter-finals, the farthest that any other African team had gone in the past.
Later as a coach, the former Paris Saint-Germain proved his worth when he fulfilled his promise of guiding Senegal to the 2018 World Cup.
A former defensive midfielder, Cisse knows too well the need to find a replacement for his injured and suspended defenders, Salif Sane and Kalidou Koulibaly, respectively.
Koulibaly, a highly-rated centre back for Italian side Napoli, was part of the Senegal line-up that faced Algeria on their June 27 group clash, when the North Africans won 1-0.
It remains to be seen who will emerge triumphant at Friday’s final at Cairo International Stadium, but for the continent, the highly-anticipated match already constitutes a success, seeing that it will pit two “local” coaches against each other – a scene last reproduced in 1998.
Kick-off at the final is at 19:00 GMT.