Strangely, perhaps, Algeria travelled to southern Germany to prepare for this World Cup. England's group stage opponents – an African nation themselves, of course – decided Bavaria would be the perfect spot to prepare for the first African World Cup. It could, though, have been an inspired decision. Mexico, who played England at Wembley a few weeks ago, were training in the same place: Algeria may have picked up some vital tips.
Not that they entirely needed the help as they prepare for the Desert Foxes' first World Cup appearance in 24 years. Six of the 20 foreign-based players in Rabah Saadane's squad play in Britain or have done so at some point during their careers.
"I don't have too much to say about them to my team-mates as they all play for clubs that the whole world knows," grins one of them, Portsmouth's Nadir Belhadj, when drawn on the suggestion that he is the group's Premier League pundit. His captain Yazid Mansouri spent six months at Coventry in 2003 (under the "excellent"Gary McAllister), and believes that England's higher profile even gives his side a preparatory edge leading up to their meeting on 18 June in Cape Town.
"It's clear they're the biggest team in the group, and one of the best in the world," shrugs Mansouri. "So we're pre-warned. Our advantage is we know who's playing, how they play, whereas they will know less about us. What we don't want to do is fall into the trap of standing back in admiration of their players, especially the likes of [Frank] Lampard and [Wayne] Rooney. That would be a huge weakness, and would send us into the match in a negative frame of mind. That's why maturity and experience will be so important."
Discipline is a common theme within the squad when looking ahead to England. "We're strong mentally, we defend as a group and we're quick on the counter," says Belhadj, "but the most important thing is that we keep defending together, because one little mistake will cost us dearly if not." Mansouri concurs: "The important thing at the moment isn't our opponents, but ourselves. We have to concentrate on projecting our own game, our tactics, our cohesion. This will determine how we get on."
Algeria realise all eyes will be on this particular aspect of their game, after their laudable run to the last four of the Africa Cup of Nations was overshadowed by their semi-final implosion against Egypt when three Algerians, including Belhadj, were sent off. "We really flipped our lids," admits the full-back, "including me." He recalls apologising to his colleagues, and underlines his gratitude that his federation campaigned successfully to have his ban overturned for the World Cup. "We learnt a lot," Belhadj reflects. "We must not get that annoyed again, we have to keep our cool, even when the referee isn't giving fouls and the opposition are getting on our nerves." Because after all, it was Egypt. "A special case," he says, "because of what went on in Cairo," where Algeria arrived in November for their final qualifying match needing to avoid a two-goal defeat in order to reach South Africa at their bitter rivals' expense.
Emad Moteab's last-gasp goal for the hosts forced a play-off with Egypt in Sudan, but not before Algeria tried to get the game called off after their bus was attacked by stone-throwing Egypt fans causing a number of their players minor head injuries before the match. Algeria recovered to clinch a "completely deserved" passage in Omdurman four days later.
Mansouri has been used to tense situations since his Algerian debut. One of nine French born-and-bred squad members, he made his bow against the country of his birth in October 2001 at the Stade de France. It was the first time the sides had met since Algerian independence in 1962. A celebration of French multi-culturalism ended up being abandoned with 15 minutes left as Algerian youths invaded the pitch chanting pro-Osama bin Laden slogans.
"It was completely weird," remembers Mansouri. "I was young, just getting into the international game, but the party was ruined by some youngsters, which was a shame, because [the match] brought together the public, two good teams ... the youngsters who did that gave political credence to those who say that Algerians can't behave themselves."
Little in the international game fazes Mansouri's coach Saadane. This is his fifth spell in charge of Algeria; he was on the coaching staff when they scored a shock victory over West Germany in Gijon in 1982, and was in sole charge the last time they qualified in 1986. "Experience is very important," he nods with a smile, "and the coach's experience can be a determining factor in high-level competitions like this."
Algerian football has changed immeasurably in the intervening period. "In 1986, we were in what I would say was a socialist professionalism," says Saadane. "Clubs were aided by national businesses, and professional sport was of a very high level." He admits the subsequent breakdown of that model could be why he is still in charge.
"We had a great system for bringing coaches through," remembers Saadane. "The base of the national team was in Algeria. From 1986, things happened in the country, notably terrorism, which led to social and economic decline, and this affected the clubs. Now we've built a team based on players that play abroad."
The interest fostered by World Cup participation could herald a regeneration of home-bred principles, Saadane believes. "It has had the parallel effect of pushing our president, and our government, towards profound reform of the professional system. With a strong economic strategy, this is going to help us bring through lots of good players in Algeria itself."
In tomorrow's Independent: Slovenia's plans to surprise England
Algeria's danger men
Portsmouth's attacking full-back will pose a constant threat to Glen Johnson with surging runs down the left side. Has 44 caps and four goals for his country.
The 26-year-old forward offers pace to the Algerian attack. Plays for AEK Athens, and has scored three goals in 16 appearances for the national team.
The tricky midfielder may not have been at his best last term as Wolfsburg failed to defend their title, but if he can show the form that earned him his move from Marseilles, he could cause England some problems. The 27-year-old has scored five goals in 52 internationals.Reuse content