Algeria are writing their own piece of World Cup history, and they might not even be done yet, writes Gary Koh.
Mention African football and the usual suspects Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Cameroon and Ghana come to mind.
But these West African nations have been upstaged in this World Cup by Algeria, who made history by becoming the first North African nation to advance into the World Cup knockout rounds after holding Russia to a thrilling 1-1 draw to finish second behind Belgium in Group H.
Step forward Vahid Halilhodzic and his Fennec Foxes, for they have thrilled throughout the group stage with a combination of European-influenced skill, pace and thought with raw Arabic passion and fire to see them progress this far.
Unlike their greedy West African counterparts who were already demanding money ahead of their own performances on the pitch, they were fuelled by passionate, fervent Algerian support from the stands in Curitiba.
That dogged determination to meet their destiny was highlighted by midfielder Sofiane Feghouli. Hauled off temporarily after a clash of heads saw blood oozing out of his head wound, he refused to let that hinder him, not even when he had to go off again for a second patch-up job late in the first-half.
Already a hero among the Algerians for his shop-stopping acrobatics against South Korea for their first World Cup finals win in over three decades, goalkeeper Rais M’Bolhi also refused to let the early Russian goal from Aleksandr Kokorin affect him.
Even as Fabio Capello’s side were showing their best form in this campaign and throwing all they could at the Algerians in a last ditch attempt to advance into the knockout rounds, the 28-year-old Academica custodian put in an assured display between the posts to thwart them.
Then there was the tactical ingenuity of cunning Bosnian coach Halilhodzic. Leaving a key defender out to avoid another yellow card (and the subsequent suspension) in a crucial encounter would typically be considered insane.
Not for the 61-year-old who had already been astute to ring in five personnel changes and a shift in tactical emphasis to floor the East Asian powerhouses. Usual skipper and defensive lynchpin Majid Bougherra was omitted from the eleven, but the veteran coach had confidence the new centre-back pairing of Rafik Halliche and Essaid Belkalem would hold out.
His belief in the starting line-up he picked to at least obtain a point for history-making purposes was never dented. Unlike the sterile showing of 2010, the class of 2014 showed tenacity to match the Russians ball for ball, tackle for tackle, shot for shot, in what was one of the most exhilarating encounters in this World Cup.
The man who eventually rewrote Algerian football history was none other than Islam Slimani. Just as he was the focal point in the Foxes’ demolishment of the Koreans, he rose highest to nod home the equaliser at the far post off a free kick.
Laser? What laser? The Russians would be complaining all night about the laser beam that was directed at Igor Akinfeev’s face prior to the goal, but the Algerians would not have none of that. What would be their destiny, would eventually turn into reality.
When the final whistle blew, the huge outpouring of emotions on and off the pitch said it all. History made, and perhaps new milestones to follow from this determined band of brothers as Ramadan sets in during the knockout rounds.
As for Fabio Capello and the 2018 World Cup hosts, what of them following their early World Cup finals exit – again at the first hurdle in the post-Soviet era? Once bitten, twice shy, the Italian has shown that his managerial failings are at the international stage.
Clearly he won’t be the ideal man to set the world alight with such sterile tactical displays in the major finals, thus it is time for the Russian football authorities to search for a more qualified candidate to get their people going in four years’ time.
McClaren-like 'keeper gamble backfires on Koreans
South Korea head coach Hong Myong Bo made two major changes to his starting eleven in the Taeguk Warriors’ last-ditch bid to keep the faltering Asian flag flying in this World Cup.
Two under-performing players from both ends of the pitch, Arsenal’s forgotten man Park Chu Young and bungling goalkeeper Jung Sung Ryong, were dropped for Kim Shin Wook and second-choice Kim Seung Kyu.
While leaving out a player who made minimal impact up front was understandable, was Hong doing a Steve McClaren (For Sung Ryong and Seung Kyu in 2014, read Paul Robinson and Scott Carson in 2008) by throwing Seung Kyu, who won only his sixth cap, into the deep end in a must-win game for the Koreans?
Surely dropping one of the rickety back four in Hong Jeong Ho, Lee Yong, Kim Young Gwon and Yuk Suk Young would have been a better option after a 4-2 pasting from Algeria, or was there no better defender at the World Cup legend’s disposal so the experienced goalkeeper was sacrificed instead?
Although the Ulsan Hyundai goalkeeper acquitted himself decently on the occasion, he was to be eventually undone by a moment of inexperience late in the game that allowed Belgium stand-in captain Jan Vertonghen to prod home the winner.
Add in the profligate shooting the Taeguk Warriors showed up front despite a changed defensive block, sans Vincent Kompany who was rested. Despite the ten men for the second half after Steven Defour’s dismissal. Despite a revamped line-up that included international debutante Adnan Januzaj.
The Red Devils showed patience to net their fourth goal of the tournament – all coming in the last 20 minutes of every match played thus far. If only the Koreans had such patience when up against Thibaut Courtois…
Then again, if only Hong Myong Bo could have kept faith in Jung Sung Ryung for a potential rewarding performance…
With that latest loss, it’s curtains for the world’s largest continent after the group stage as all four representatives, South Korea, Japan, Australia and Iran, all crashed out by propping up their respective pools.