When England line up against Algeria in Cape Town on Friday they should be grateful the shot-shy Desert Foxes have found no successor to their legendary forward Lakhdar Belloumi. It was Belloumi whose strike earned Algeria a stunning 2-1 victory over reigning European champions West Germany on their World Cup debut at Spain '82, and, from a distance of almost three decades, he does not hesitate to nominate that team as "the best generation of Algerian players of all time".
That Algeria's other goal against the Germans came from Rabah Madjer, scorer of a cheeky backheel for Porto in the 1987 European Cup final, underlines his point. It also highlights just how impoverished their 2010 counterparts are by comparison – they managed only one goal in three warm-up matches before today's Group C curtain-raiser against Slovenia, a Karim Ziani penalty in last weekend's 1-0 success over United Arab Emirates. "It's the weak point of the team," Belloumi said.
There were no such worries back in Belloumi's day. The 1981 African Footballer of the Year remembers fondly his second-half winner in Gijon which came just a minute after Karl-Heinz Rummenigge had equalised Madjer's opening effort. "We put together 11 passes without one German player touching the ball. They'd just equalised but we went straight up to their end and scored again."
Although Algeria lost their second game, against Austria, they beat Chile 3-2, only to be denied a second-round place by the infamous Anschluss match between Austria and their German neighbours, who contrived a 1-0 win for the latter to ensure both advanced. "It was something shameful for the world of football but because of that Fifa changed their regulations," Belloumi said. Final group games would be played simultaneously after that.
He returned to the World Cup four years later, under their present coach Rabah Saadane, now in his fifth spell at the helm. They made less of an impact in Mexico, taking a solitary point from a 1-1 draw with Northern Ireland, though they did lose narrowly (1-0), to Brazil. Belloumi pointed to "a problem between the amateurs and professionals" which Saadane struggled to resolve. "He was too nice, he could not control things at that time."
Belloumi himself was in the amateur camp, his opportunity of a move to Europe having passed. Though he had contact with European clubs, including Barcelona, before Spain '82, "the law did not allow us to leave the country before the age of 27", he said. In 1985 he caught the eye of Juventus after shining in a friendly against them, only to miss out on a dream transfer after breaking his leg in the African Champions' Cup in Libya. "It was a real shame for me that I couldn't go."
His international career ended in controversy after he was implicated in the assault on the Egyptian team doctor when a fight broke out after an Italia '90 qualifying defeat by Algeria's arch-rivals. The doctor was blinded by a flying glass and Belloumi was issued with an international arrest warrant that was rescinded only last year. Reluctant to discuss the matter, he said: "The most important thing to say is I am innocent."
Now 51, he is proud to have been part of an Algeria side that "made history". "We had a very tightly-knit group. Today it's the opposite." The contrast between his generation of home-based youngsters and today's squad could hardly be more striking: 17 of the 23 in South Africa are French-born, including Hassan Yebda, on loan at Portsmouth last term, who won the Under-17 World Cup with France in 2001.
Add the fact that virtually a third of the squad have only nailed their colours to the mast since qualification and it is no surprise Algeria have struggled for consistency since defender Antar Yahia, installed as captain for the World Cup but a possible absentee today with an ankle problem, fired the spectacular goal that earned a 1-0 play-off triumph over Egypt in November. In the African Nations' Cup, they eliminated Ivory Coast before capitulating 4-0 to their Egyptian nemesis in the semi-finals, then suffered 3-0 friendly defeats by Serbia in March and the Republic of Ireland in May. The loss of Lazio playmaker Mourad Meghni has not helped, and the key men include Rangers defender Majid Bougherra, Portsmouth wide man Nadir Belhadj and the Wolfsburg midfielder Ziani.
Victory over Slovenia today would raise hopes ahead of facing England, but defeat could deal their morale a mortal blow. "During the World Cup we have to go on the attack. We have nothing to lose, especially in the first match," said Belloumi, who knows a thing or two about first impressions on the world stage.