Brazil has occupied a very special place in Algerian hearts since 26 June 2014 and the draw that Les Fennecs (The Desert Foxes) played out with Russia in Curitiba at the last FIFA World Cup™. The point the north Africans secured that day took them through to the second round of the world finals for the first time, and their supporters will long remember the exploits of Islam Slimani, Yacine Brahimi, Sofiane Feghouli and Co in that momentous campaign.
Schurmann selected the trio for their overseas experience and ability to guide their younger team-mates. Having played 20 matches in La Liga last season, 18 of them starts, and come up against the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona in the process, Ait-Atmane will certainly have plenty to pass on to his colleagues in Rio. Setting out his objectives for the Olympics, the Algeria star said: “When I play with the national team, I make the most of every moment, which is why I’m so happy to be playing in such an important competition as the Olympics. We’ll be going there to represent Algeria as best we can.”
A repeat performance?
Algeria have a testing assignment ahead of them at Rio 2016, where they will take on Argentina, Portugal and Honduras in the group phase. On paper at least, Les Fennecs will not start out as favourites to progress. That is nothing new for them, however, having found themselves in the same position at Brazil 2014, when Belgium and Russia were tipped to progress from Group H, with Korea Republic also expected to push them for points. Yet, Slimani and Co had other ideas, joining the Belgians in the next round.
Ait-Atmane is hopeful he and his team-mates can spring another surprise on Brazilian soil. “Argentina are a strong side but they don’t have their best players this time,” he said. “We all know how passionate they are about their football. You get young Argentinian players coming through in every tournament. With Brazil being right next door, they’re going to have a lot of supporters cheering them on too. Portugal’s youngsters always shine in continental and international competitions. As for Honduras, I don’t know that much about them. I’d prefer not to say anything about them and see them for myself on the pitch.”
In preparing for Rio, the Algerians have already had a number of training camps, including one in the mountains in Tikjda. Following friendlies a few months ago against Palestine, Korea Republic and a double-header against Iraq, Les Fennecs headed off to the south of Spain to take on Valencia and Granada.
Results did not meet the fans’ expectations, however, with the Algerians recording a solitary win in seven games, drawing two and losing the other four. Yet despite that meagre return, Ait-Atmane remains hopeful about their chances: “We played those friendlies to prepare for Rio. Results aside, it was important to make progress and work together as a unit, because we don’t play with each other very often. We absolutely have to tighten up in defence before the start of the tournament.”
He added: “We’re not bothered about the results because they don’t mean anything. We tried to win every game but, at the end of the day, it’s not the result that counts.” Following the matches against Iraq and the two Liga sides, Ait-Atmane believes Algeria’s preparations for Rio 2016 are now complete: “We played four games and I think that’s all we needed before setting off for Rio. We’re ready to go and get some good results.”
Club and country
With Nabil Bentaleb’s international prospects having fallen away after a string of injuries and a lack of opportunities at Tottenham Hotspur, and Medhi Lacen having retired over a year ago, Ait-Atmane will be looking to kick on and break into the full Algeria team in the months to come. His chances of doing that will depend on his ability to impress in Rio and catch the eye of new Fennec coach Milovan Rajevac.
Discussing his dream of one day pulling on the senior national team jersey, the Sporting Gijon man said: “Every Algerian player dreams of running out for Les Fennecs. I might have a chance to play at the 2017 Cup on Nations in Gabon, and I’m currently with the Olympic team, which to me is a first step to the senior side.”
Ait-Atmane finished last season on a positive note with his Spanish club, earning the confidence of coach Abelardo and playing most of the closing games of the campaign, helping his side stave off relegation from La Liga. Winding up our chat, he set out his objectives for the future: “We’re going to try and do better next season than we did last time. We need to put some good performances together to make sure we don’t get involved in another relegation battle.”