Twelve months ago Algeria were in turmoil after the departure of former national team star Rabah Madjer, but the appointment of Djamel Belmadi proved a stroke of genius from a federation that had burned through five coaches in two turbulent years.
It was a gamble on a coach who had cut his teeth exclusively in Qatar, where he earned a reputation as a tough disciplinarian but one capable of extracting the best from his players.
That punt paid off handsomely in Egypt as Algeria clinched a second Africa Cup of Nations title on Friday, ending a 29-year drought by defeating a strong Senegal team spearheaded by Sadio Mane to lift the trophy for a first time on foreign soil.
“I said we were going to the Cup of Nations to win. I wanted to send a strong message to the players, to tell them I was committing to a strong project. Titles are what interest me,” Belmadi recalled of his bold declaration ahead of the tournament.
“I was asked if it was a transitional period. No, here we are [as champions].”
With a reputation for attractive football but plagued by indiscipline, Belmadi brought an element of steel and clear tactical guidance to a team that impressed at the 2014 World Cup, taking eventual champions Germany to extra time in the last 16, before a period of regression.
“The problem in the national team was solved by Belmadi. He was preceded by five or six managers who were not able to solve it,” said Algeria great Lakhdar Belloumi.
“Belmadi knew that the problem is between the players, differences regarding the ball, who takes the corner, who takes the free-kick or the penalty.
“He was able to solve the problems, he excluded some players, put others in their place, made people join the ranks.”
Algeria arrived at the 2015 Cup of Nations tipped to go the distance in Equatorial Guinea but lost in the quarter-finals, and proceeded to exit at the group stage two years later before a dreadful qualifying campaign for the 2018 World Cup.
‘Good cook, good dish’
Belmadi’s recalling of defensive midfielder Adlene Guedioura after the best part of two years in the wilderness was particularly shrewd, while Haris Belkebla’s pre-tournament exclusion for baring his backside online underlined the coach’s zero-tolerance approach.
“He really knows the players and what he wants. The good thing is he knows how to get through to the players and how to listen,” said Guedioura, who served as the glue at the base of Algeria’s midfield.
“If you don’t have a good cook you can’t have a good dish.”
Teenage midfielder Hicham Boudaoui, the youngest and only home-based member of the squad, said Belmadi had “won the players over” with his unwavering commitment.
“He gave a spirit to the players, they love him, that’s the secret of what he brought to the team. He gives us a lot of advice, we listen to him. He won the players over.”
With a squad backing him to the hilt, Belmadi again outfoxed old friend Aliou Cisse in the first Cup of Nations final between two African coaches in 21 years as Senegal’s vaunted attack floundered when it mattered most.
“It perhaps wasn’t our best match in terms of what we produced, but we were the best attack in the tournament and the best defence alongside Senegal,” Belmadi summarised.
“It’s a deserved victory if you look at the tournament. The players have done incredible work. We’ve prepared for this Cup of Nations for a long time. It’s not easy living with this pressure every day of wanting to go all the way. They have been fabulous.”