When El Hedi Belameiri first moved to ES Setif, many questioned whether the forward had the qualities needed to prosper at his new club. Introduced to the game in the youth ranks at Metz and Amneville, he was taking a massive leap into the unknown, but Belameiri now stands top of the CAF Champions League scoring charts and has no regrets about turning down several European clubs.
The call from Setif came on 10 July last year, and Belameiri quickly snapped up the chance to parade his talents in the Algerian top flight. Keen to prove his various critics wrong, the 23-year-old was also excited by the prospect of joining a championship followed closely by his own family. "It was an important day for my career because it was the first time someone had offered me a professional contract," he said. "I decided to give the adventure a go, not least since the club were getting ready to contest the African Champions League."
Eye for goal
Since then, Belameiri has fully justified the faith placed in him by Setif's scouts, who persuaded the club's president to bring the striker on board despite his young age and lack of top-flight experience. What clinched the deal was Belameiri's unquestionable eye for goal, with the France-based player's figures speaking for themselves. Before packing his bags for Algeria, Belameiri was the leading scorer for amateur outfit Amneville, having struck 13 goals and served up the same number of assists.
He promptly continued in the same vein in his new surroundings, tying down a spot as the focal point of Setif's attack and kicking off their Champions League bid with six efforts thus far. "I had to repay the trust they put in me," explained the No25. "I work very hard during training and our competitive matches to take our team forward. My hopes haven't been disappointed and I've managed to score game after game. The best is yet to come."
Belameiri now dreams of clinching the Champions League golden boot, and his current tally leaves him well placed to come out on top of the pile. "To finish as top scorer and win the golden boot would be a wonderful reward," he said, though he faces stiff competition from Tunisian marksman Haythem Jouini – whose Esperance de Tunis side will be Setif's next opponents in the fifth round of group games on Saturday.
"To be honest, I'm not too interested in our rivalry," added Belameiri, who buried the winner when the teams met earlier in the group stage. "The important thing is to win the game. I'll be happy if the scoreline is in our favour at the end, even if I don't score. I'm not selfish and I'm more interested in the group situation. My main goal is to win the Champions League."
Belameiri and Co will take a step closer to that objective if they prevail against Esperance, with victory guaranteeing them a spot in the semi-finals. Setif will set out as favourites too, taking the field as section leaders against the team propping up the pool, but Belameiri is taking nothing for granted. "Esperance de Tunis are a great side, and we found it tough beating them in the first game. This is a last chance for them and they'll be going for it at our place. As for us, we're preparing as best we can to reach the semi-finals and get closer to the final."
Setif have yet to win at home after four group stage outings, but Belameiri does not feel their supporters should be overly concerned. "You have to look at the positives in our campaign so far," he said. "We haven't won at home but we've won away and remain unbeaten. This match against Esperance is our chance to show that we're the best team in Africa."
The Champions League title has gone to clubs from Tunisia and Egypt for the last three seasons, yet Belameiri is hopeful that 2014 could be Algeria's year. This summer has already proved fruitful for the north African nation, with Les Fennecs (Desert Foxes) clinching a maiden spot in the Round of 16 at the FIFA World Cup™ – an exploit that has increased optimism throughout the country.
"The national side has given Algerian football a new glow," said Belameiri. "We went out to the eventual winners with our heads held high. That performance has had a positive effect on our mentality. Before all our games, the supporters chant 'One, two, three, viva l'Algérie,' and that forces us to give everything like the national team."
It has also fed the striker's motivation to slip on an Algeria shirt himself at some point. "That's a childhood dream which hasn't come true yet," he said. "I'm doing everything to achieve that goal. I want to play for Algeria, bring something extra to my country of origin and fulfil the wishes of my family and friends."
More immediately, Belameiri will go into Setif's next match keen to help his side move closer to Champions League glory, while bolstering his own campaign to finish as top scorer. After all, there could be no better way of boosting his international prospects than to shine once again on the continental stage.