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May 22, 2014

Algeria's World Cup legacy

Algeria were not heavily regarded prior to the 1982 World Cup, but by the end they had pulled off one of the biggest upsets in tournament history.
Algeria were not heavily regarded prior to the 1982 World Cup, but by the end they had pulled off one of the biggest upsets in tournament history.

Everything got bigger in the 1980s: shoulder-pads, trouser legs, hair and the World Cup. The expansion from 16 teams to 24 meant there was more space for regions that had previously been poorly represented. Africa were allocated two spots, which was only one more than the number they got in 1978, but a significant growth nonetheless because they had only managed a guaranteed place four editions previously.

The expansion eliminated the need for qualifying which had previously culminated with a mini-league. Instead, it consisted of four rounds of matches, all consisting of home and away ties. Neither Algeria nor Cameroon were continental champions at the time but they were the two teams who emerged as Africa's candidates. Algeria overcame Sierra Leone, Sudan, Niger, which was the only opponent they lost to in one of the legs of the tie and Nigeria while Cameroon beat Malawi, Zimbabwe, in which they also lost one of the legs, Zaire and Morocco.

Neither were expected to do to well in Spain but they held their own and made a statement. Cameroon was responsible for the former. They played out three draws, against Peru, Poland and Italy, missed out on a place in the second round only on goal difference and overall proved a stubborn foe. Algeria ended up being sensational.

They were grouped with West Germany, who had stood in Tunisia's way four years earlier, and were planning on being just as much of a roadblock to Algeria. The European champions were so confident of their chances that they issued wise-cracks about to whom they would dedicate the seventh and eighth goals and how they would be able to shoot while smoking a cigar.

Algeria weren't too sure about what to make of all the bravado. They had beaten the Republic of Ireland, Real Madrid and Benfica in the lead-up; their style of play was built on attacking and fluid movements, which captain Ali Fergani described as "a concoction of German, French and Latin styles." All Algeria's players were based at home and their knowledge of the game was formed through each other. That also resulted in strong bonds, tightened by the need for a decent showing to celebrate 20 years of their country's independence. In all that, they also remained in awe of West Germany.

Rabah Madjer said he regarded the German side as "the best team in that tournament." It was also the team Madjer scored the opening goal against. It was in the second half, but still West Germany had enough time to equalise. But Algeria had another surprise up their sleeve and they finished off a nine-pass movement with Lakhdar Belloumi finding the back of the net.

Algeria's 2-1 victory is still regarded as one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history and was celebrated for days. The sweeping euphoria was cited as one of the reasons the team went down 1-0 to Austria five days later, but they regrouped to win their final match 3-2 over Chile, although Algeria were left to rue conceding the two second half goals to the South Americans. Belloumi called it "inexperience" which allowed Algeria to be taken advantage of on the counter-attack.

The result left Algeria in with a chance of making it into the second round, but their fate was no longer in their own hands. Algeria could only progress if West Germany beat Poland by a maximum margin of two goals. Both West Germany and Poland knew that and after Germany scored in the 10th minute, the match became a tepid affair. There was no attempt at competition, merely lazy passing, especially back passes to the goalkeeper.

The Spanish spectators in the crowd chanted "Fuera, Fuera" ("Out, Out") while the few Algerians fans in attendance burned money in a show of displeasure at what has since been dubbed match-fixing. The on-air commentators voiced their disgust with the proceedings, but neither West Germany nor Poland was apologetic.

The head of the Austrian delegation, Hans Tschak, even explained the result in rather shocking fashion as noted by The Guardian: "Naturally, today's game was played tactically. But if 10,000 'sons of the desert' here in the stadium want to trigger a scandal because of this, it just goes to show that they have too few schools. Some sheikh comes out of an oasis, is allowed to get a sniff of World Cup air after 300 years and thinks he's entitled to open his gob."

The shame of Gijon caused FIFA to change the regulations which applied to the last set of group games at a World Cup. They would kick off simultaneously to avoid some teams knowing what outcome they need to help others progress. For Algeria, that has been the most significant mark they have left on a World Cup.