It was in June of this year that the powers-that-be at the Algiers-based club handed him the reins on a temporary basis, an opportunity that the former youth coach could not turn down. “My appointment has since been made permanent, which meant that I was finally able to achieve something great with this team,” he told FIFA.com.
At the time, the job was anything but a soft option. “Things weren’t going well – the team was in real trouble, on the verge of relegation to the second division. Only a win on the final day saved them from going down the previous season,” he continued.
After accepting the challenge, Hamdi put in place a training programme aimed at boosting morale ahead of their opening Champions League group-stage clash with fellow Algerians and reigning African champions ES Setif. “We spent a long time preparing for it; I focused mainly on confidence and motivation,” he said. “We have talented players, and the terrible results up to that point were embarrassing.”
Hamdi brought some new blood into the squad and his players promptly defeated ES Setif away from home. With the Red and Blacks supposedly close to appointing a Belgian coach, the result came at just the right time for the self-assured Algerian.
“Negotiations with other coaches didn’t bother me too much, because the agreement we had in place stated that I would become the assistant anyway. Honestly, the win over ES Setif gave me a huge confidence boost. It was at that point that I thought we could go far in that competition,” he recalled.
USM Alger’s subsequent positive results in the Champions League against Algerian and Sudanese opposition certainly surprised many, but the man in temporary charge continued to insist to his players that there was no reason why they could not go all the way in the prestigious continental tournament.
Their fine series of results eventually forced the club chairman, delighted to have finally found the perfect candidate right under his nose, to give up on the idea of hiring a new coach, and to instead hand full control to Hamdi.
However, the new appointee believes that patience and luck have also played an important role in the marked improvement in his charges’ performances. “Qualifying for the knockout stages was the result of a huge amount of work aimed at helping a team that was falling apart to regain confidence. Everyone understood what I was trying to achieve and contributed to this success: officials, players, coaching staff and fans.
“We also had our fair share of luck. In the first leg of the semi-final, our Sudanese opponents Al-Hilal missed a penalty at a crucial moment. We got the rub of the green in what was the toughest match on our road to the final. The Al Hilal supporters turned up in large numbers and created an atmosphere that made it difficult for our players. But good fortune and our fighting spirit saw us through to the final.”
On the verge of glory
Hamdi now finds himself on the cusp of emulating Kheireddine Madoui by becoming only the second Algerian coach to capture the Champions League title, a triumph that would qualify USM Alger for the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2015.
To do so, the 44-year-old tactician will need to steer his players to a two-legged victory over Congolese giants TP Mazembe. “We shouldn’t underestimate our opponents, but we shouldn’t fall into the trap of overestimating them either,” he explained.
“I’ve got confidence in my players and I’m sure that they’ll be up for the challenge. After the run they’ve had, it would be a travesty if they didn’t lift the trophy. USM Alger are just 180 minutes away from creating history. We’ll be representing Algeria and all of North Africa. We’ll do everything in our power to ensure that an Algerian name appears on the trophy for the second year running.”
In the event of success and an eventual shot at the Club World Cup, Hamdi will have well and truly proved that USM Alger’s protracted decision to make his position permanent was entirely correct.