On this day 35 years ago, on 30 October 1981, the Algerian national side made history by qualifying for the FIFA World Cup™ for the very first time. Getting the best out of a golden generation of players, the Algerians capped off a splendid qualifying run with a two-legged victory over Nigeria that sealed their place at Spain 1982.
Lakhdar Belloumi played a key role in his team’s triumph, scoring four goals in the qualifying campaign, two of which came against Nigeria – one in the away match in Lagos and the other in the decisive home encounter in Constantine.
“I was in the form of my life against Nigeria away, scoring one and setting up another,” Belloumi, renowned for his magical passing ability in the 1980s, told FIFA.com. “I scored again in Constantine and passed the ball to Rabah Madjer, who grabbed the second goal. With the help of my team-mates, I had a big influence on those two games. I also remember that I was the top scorer overall, getting 6 of our 16 goals.”
Belloumi believes Algeria’s reverse at the hands of the Nigerians in the 1980 Cup of Nations could be regarded as a blessing in disguise, as it motivated him and his team-mates to exact revenge the following year. “Losing that final affected us badly, because it was extremely difficult to win the Cup of Nations back then. But we knew we had a better team and that they wouldn’t beat us again, even if the match were replayed ten times. A year and half later, we beat them home and away and made it to the World Cup.”
Despite developing into one of Africa’s better teams between 1976 and 1980, Algeria failed to qualify for Argentina 1978, losing out to Tunisia in the final round of qualifying. It became evident that they required a coach to refine their skills and steer them to the world stage. In stepped former Lokomotiv Moscow player Evgeni Rogov.
“After Rogov’s arrival in 1981, the team moved onto a different level compared to the 1980 Cup of Nations,” said Belloumi. “Except for Faouzi Mansouri, Nourredine Kourichi and Mustapha Dahelb, all the other players played in the domestic league. This enabled us to train on a weekly basis and play a lot of friendly games, which created a real feeling of harmony in the squad. And we shouldn’t forget how keen the team was to fly the national flag on the world’s biggest stage.
“But to be fair to all concerned, I should add that the Algerian sport reforms in 1976 also contributed towards building a strong team. Players received top-notch training in their clubs, coached by former FLN [National Liberation Front] players and other veterans. That helped us to reach the World Cup, even though our resources were practically non-existent.”
The team made their way through the qualifying campaign in impressive fashion, and just a few months after Rogov had taken the reins, their date with destiny loomed. In order to book their berth in Spain, the North Africans only needed to avoid losing to Nigeria by more than one goal. In the end, Belloumi, Madjer and Co insisted on providing the thousands of fans present in Constantine with a deserved and historic win.
Belloumi still remembers the game as if it were yesterday. “After winning 2-0 in the away match, our morale was high going into the home leg. The fans in Constantine were our 12th man. But our fans gave us great support at all our matches, not just against Nigeria. We went into that match as if it were a replay of the Cup of Nations final. After we won, the whole country celebrated, because we’d never made it to a World Cup before.”
As often happens in football, history is on the verge of repeating itself: in the African qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Algeria will again face Nigeria, who make up Group B along with Cameroon and Zambia. The Algerians started off with a disappointing home draw with Cameroon in the opening match of this third and final round of qualifying, while Nigeria overcame Zambia and now top the section with three points. The Super Eagles host Les Verts in Uyo next month.
“Algeria have a great footballing history,” said Belloumi. “We’ve defeated Nigeria more than once. We beat them on their own patch in 1981 and in Libya in 1982. My message to Riyad Mahrez and Co, therefore, is that winning on 12 November is certainly not impossible. On the contrary, I believe the Nigerians will be the ones under pressure as they’re at home and playing in front of their own fans.
“I watched their game against Zambia. They’re not a daunting or unbeatable team, by any means. Our team is very strong. For me, the draw against Cameroon was just a misstep. And we mustn’t forget that Cameroon have a great team and a long World Cup history, and that we’ve never beaten them in an official match. Let’s put that slip-up behind us and concentrate on picking up three points in Nigeria.”
Before signing off, the ex-Algeria No10 concluded on a positive and confident note: “We will win if we impose our style of play. Our team is powerful and united, and with a little bit of desire and heart, we can return home with three points in the bag.”