Abdelkader Salhi's father named his son in tribute to the Emir Abdelkader, the 19th-century Algerian national hero. The young boy has gone on to do his nation proud as well, forming part of the side that has taken the Fennec Foxes to the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Rio 2016, their first appearance since Moscow 1980.
The Algerians earned their place at the Games courtesy of their run to the final of the 2015 U-23 CAF Africa Cup of Nations in Senegal, where they went down to Nigeria. Reflecting on that performance in an interview with FIFA.com, Salhi said: “Qualifying for Rio 2016 was not easy at all. We were in a tight group with strong teams like Egypt, Mali and Nigeria, but thanks to our team spirit we managed to finish first in the section.”
He added: “Though we didn’t come away with the African U-23 title, we can be very proud of what we achieved. We spent the whole competition focusing on our objective of qualifying for Rio 2016.”
The 2-0 semi-final defeat of South Africa in Dakar was the high point of the Fennec Foxes’ campaign, as Salhi explained: “That was our toughest game and it was also our best win of the competition. It was a perfect night for us in Dakar. Everything went just as we’d hoped for and every player was on top form. We were really focused and the plans our coach [Pierre-Andre Schurmann] put in place were just right. We absolutely deserved to qualify.”
A footballing technician
Now Algeria and Africa’s finest young goalkeeper, Salhi has had to clear a few hurdles along the way. Before becoming the first-choice custodian with his club side ASO Chlef he worked as a car mechanic. Looking back on the early days of his career, he said: “I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth. After completing my studies I had to help my family get by, so I worked as a car mechanic while carrying on with my football. Once the Chlef coach put his faith in me, I left the garage and devoted myself to my sport.
“It was a privilege to sign for ASO Chlef and to work with the best youth coaches around,” he continued. “That’s why I didn’t hesitate for a second in accepting the offer. The support of my family has played an important role in my success. My father was delighted about the offer because he knows that playing football and being a goalkeeper makes me happy.”
Salhi has continued to make his family smile, overcoming every test he has faced and helping Algeria reach Rio 2016 by conceding only three goals in the continental finals, fewer than any other keeper in the tournament. “I was lucky because I had the benefit of specific training with the squad. We met up every week at a training centre and had a friendly match every month. We set a high standard and that helped us make Rio 2016.”
A job to do
Thousands of Algerians will be making the trip to Brazil this summer to cheer the U-23s on, all of them hopeful they can reprise the kind of performance the senior team turned in at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
Looking ahead to the Olympics, Salhi said: “Let me tell you now: we won’t be going to the Games to go sightseeing but to get an honourable result for the people of Algeria, the Arab world and Africa in general. If you look at the current state of Algerian football and the form of the players in the Olympic team, then you’ll see that there’s every chance of us going far in the competition.”
Salhi and his team-mates will be watched closely in Rio by both the senior national team coach and the scouts of foreign clubs anxious to sign Africa’s leading U-23 keeper. Imposingly built and never afraid to show his strength against opposing strikers, Salhi is a good reader of the game, commanding in the air, comfortable with the ball at his feet and a skilled exponent of the penalty save: “Everything has gone as expected so far, thanks to God. My main objective is to keep goal for a European team and the Algeria team, which makes playing at the Rio Olympics a unique opportunity for me. If I’m going to make it happen though, I need to work hard and stick at it.”
Taking heart from Algeria’s run to the last 16 at Brazil 2014, Salhi and his colleagues are confident about their chances of success at Rio 2016.