Can Algeria win the Africa Cup of Nations again after 2019 triumph?

Algeria’s stars lifted the country’s spirits during a time of political unrest with their surprise 2019 AFCON win… so, after putting together an incredible 23-game unbeaten streak, can Riyad Mahrez and Co retain their title?

  • Algeria go into this year’s Africa Cup of Nations as the reigning champions
  • The Fennecs made their people proud by winning in 2019 after a political crisis
  • National team coach Djamel Belmadi played a crucial role in their triumph
  • Algeria are now on a 23-game unbeaten run going into this year’s competition 

Algeria’s Africa Cup of Nations victory in 2019 was more than just a country winning a football tournament. It marked the start of a new era for an entire nation looking for an identity. 

Before the country’s triumph three summers ago, very few expected Algeria to pull up any tress in the continent’s most popular football tournament. New coach Djamel Belmadi’s credentials were questioned after unconvincing results in qualifying.

But Algeria’s emergence from political darkness in 2019 coincided with its first major honour in nearly three decades.

Algeria go into this year’s Africa Cup of Nations as the reigning champions after their 2019 win

Algeria coach Djamel Belmadi helped to turn around the country both on and off the pitch

That year, the country was in a dire situation politically, with weekly demonstrations on the street against president Abdelaziz Bouteflika – who had not been seen in public for two years but was seeking a fifth term as leader later that year. 

Algeria’s younger population, who had become frustrated with the country’s economic plan which created very few jobs, became particularly angry with Bouteflika’s leadership and riots at the start led to 2019 led to violence with police.

The much-maligned former Algeria president also used the national football team to try and push through his political agenda, but that part of the country’s culture was not operating well either.

Before the 2019 tournament, Algeria president Abdelaziz Bouteflika was deeply unpopular

Algeria’s political scene was dominated by protests telling Bouteflika not to run for a fifth term

After making back-to-back World Cups in 2010 and 2014, Algeria had failed to reach Russia 2018 and went through six managers in five years – before Belmadi was appointed in the middle of 2018. 

He failed to inspire too many positive results in his first few games in charge. Algeria lost away to Benin in qualifying while the last few matches before AFCON saw the nation draw to Gambia and Burundi. 

But Belmadi, who is former player at Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City, was making the changes he wanted off-the-pitch. Algeria had the stars such as Riyad Mahrez and Aissa Mandi to compete, but there was a lack of togetherness.

Algeria’s new manager put his foot down on the club vs country debate with his players. Stars like former Montpellier star Andy Delort, who chose their club over country, were exiled and players who wanted to play for Algeria – irrespective of their club – were considered over them.

National team coach Belmadi put his foot down on the club vs country debate in Algeria

It meant attacking players like Youcef Belaili, who was turning out in Tunisia before the 2019 AFCON, and Al-Sadd striker Baghdad Bounedjah, were picked instead of Delort – and both played crucial roles in Algeria’s success. 

By the time Algeria appeared at the tournament three summers ago, Bouteflika had resigned as president after falling to the vast protests from his people. 

The nation was in a better mood politically by the start of the tournament – and its early AFCON appearances showed. 

The Fennecs won every single group game comfortably and convincingly – without conceding a goal. Up front, the goals were shared by the likes of Belaili, Bounedjah, Mahrez – along with Napoli’s Adam Ounas and former Leicester star Islam Slimani. 

Algeria started the 2019 AFCON in excellent fashion winning their first four without conceding

Young Ismael Bennacer (left) was a growing talent and won the Player of the Tournament prize

But it was the performances of young midfielder Ismael Bennacer – then playing for Empoli having been let go by Arsenal earlier in his career – who was stealing the show. 

Bennacer, now turning out for AC Milan, won the man-of-the-match award in his first two matches and was starting to turn the heads of Europe’s elite. At that early stage, little did he know how good a tournament he would have.

As Algeria moved into the knockout stages, belief was growing that their group stage form could propel them into the latter stages. A comfortable 3-0 win over Guinea continued their excellent form both in front of goal at the back, before controversy ensued during their quarter-final clash with the Ivory Coast.

Belmadi’s side won 4-3 against the Ivory Coast on penalties – after a 1-1 draw in normal time – and it became apparent that Algeria’s following was growing around the world.

Algeria’s quarter-final win over Ivory Coast saw Algeria fans celebrate wildly in France

But the celebrations were marred with looting and violence with police, creating controversy

Algeria fans in France were celebrating on the streets, raising their country’s flag on iconic venues such as the Champs Elysees – but those celebrations were marred by violence with police and looting.

By the time Algeria turned out for their semi-final against Nigeria, there was anti-Fennec feeling in France, with the game was taking place on Bastille Day. 

When one French broadcaster tweeted a supportive tweet to Nigeria as an Algeria loss would ‘preserve our national holiday’ and ‘avoid the tide of Algerian flags’, it only galvanised the AFCON semi-finalists.

Algeria won the last four clash 2-1 with Riyad Mahrez scoring the winner from a free-kick. The Manchester City star responded to the broadcaster after the game, saying: ‘That free-kick was for you, we are all together.’

After the controversy surrounding their last two games, the final against Senegal was rather forgettable on the pitch. Algeria were not really troubled – though did make matters difficult for themselves at the end by inviting on pressure – but a deflected early strike from Bounedjah, assisted by the thriving Bennacer, was enough for the win. 

The Empoli midfielder would go on to win both the Best Player and Best Young Player of the tournament, having finished as the top assist maker in the competition alongside his now-AC Milan team-mate Franck Kessie. 

And after the win, Algeria fans returned to the streets of France to celebrate a historic triumph – their people could be proud of their country both on and off the pitch.

Algeria won the final 1-0 against Senegal thanks to Baghdad Bounedjah’s deflected strike

Their fans returned to the streets of France once again to celebrate their historic final victory

Despite it being a surprise triumph, there is every reason to suggest that Algeria can win a second successive AFCON as the bond between Belmadi and his players grows. 

Their attacking talent has been added to, most notably through West Ham winger Said Benrahma who now joins returning stars Ounas, Bounedjah, Belaili and of course Mahrez in an eye-catching attack.

But Algeria’s credentials are best supported by a 23-game unbeaten run in all competitions under Belmadi, a frankly incredible run of form. 

Riyad Mahrez’s (above) side are now 23 games unbeaten going into this tournament

The Fennecs have not lost a match since October 2019, a 3-0 defeat to Morocco in the African Nations Championship – and just once since

Algeria have won 16 of those 23 matches, which has only increased the Fennec optimism going into this tournament.

One Algerian journalist claimed in this tournament build-up that manager Belmadi is more popular than its current president Abdelmadjid Tebboune. Another AFCON triumph and the 45-year-old could be considering a career in politics.  

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