Algeria planning ahead

With players lighting up some of Europe's biggest leagues and the national side on the verge of 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualification, Algerian football is very much on the up. Those high-profile examples are just the tip of the iceberg too, with progress and even history being made in other areas.

Until this year, Algeria had never reached a FIFA U-17 World Cup finals, but they are about to compete at Nigeria 2009 and their coach, Othmane Ibrir, spoke to about his team's ambitions.

"We're aware that football in our country is experiencing a real renaissance and we want to play a role in that," said the man who successfully steered the young Fennecs through qualifying for the first time. "For a long period, we were lagging behind. Not because of a lack of will, but because of a lack of means. Today, we're trying to change things and our football's getting the benefits of that at every level."

Too modest to admit his own part in recent breakthroughs, Ibrir has nonetheless been one of the driving forces behind the scenes, having launched himself into establishing the country's first football academy when he began working for the national association in 2007. "As we were organising the 2009 African U-17 Championship in Algeria, we wanted to put out a competitive team," he explained.

"We held the first training camps between February and June 2007 and then, with the help of the Ministry of Education, we created this academy at the sports school in Algiers." Since then, three classes have graduated, including the crop of players who will be defending Algerian colours in Nigeria. Ibrir's work is already yielding inarguable results.

Writing history
"I often tell my players that they're writing Algerian football history and that, in the future, they'll be able to tell their children ‘I contributed to that renaissance'," added the coach, who spent the majority of his playing days in Canada. "We want to progress and succeed, not only for ourselves, but for all the generations to come. The [FIFA] World Cup isn't the finishing line: it's a step, and obviously an important one, but just a step in the process of reconstruction."

Does that suggest a lack of ambition. "On the contrary," retorted the former Montreal Impact player. "Let's be realistic, we're going to be playing teams with much more experience and much better infrastructure than ourselves. But we'll be playing free of pressure for the honour of Algeria; not only in terms of results, but also in terms of our behaviour and fair play." Group F rivals Uruguay, Italy and Korea Republic can consider themselves warned: they will be facing a team that are both motivated to win and respectful.

Ibrir acknowledges that his side will not be favourites against such experienced opposition, but he refuses to rule out qualifying from the section. "Our goal is to reach the second round," explained the former Canada U-17 trainer.

If we don't go through, we'll have to be positive because we'll have gained experience that will help in the development of our football.
Algeria U-17 coach Othmane Ibrir on Nigeria 2009

"I know what my team is capable of when they play at their best. I just don't know if that will be enough if the other teams play at their best. If we don't go through, we'll have to be positive because we'll have gained experience that will help in the development of our football."

Moving Algerian football forward is Ibrir's clear objective, the coach only too aware that his country has failed to stir the footballing world in the last 20 years. A teacher at heart, the young Greens trainer also has a vast tactical knowledge, which he intends to use to influence his players' thinking.

"In Canada, I worked with well-known French, German and Dutch coaches," he said. "I have an international perspective on tactics, but my starting point in terms of how I work is the background of an Algerian footballer, with the strengths and weaknesses that come with that.

Learning to defend
"Let's just say that the average Algerian footballer is not naturally defensive," he added with a laugh. "Our players are technically gifted, alert and rapid. The problem is when we don't have the ball. We need to learn to defend well. I'm trying to give my team an attitude towards defending that we've never had before in Algeria."

The Fennecs have other qualities, of course. "Our play relies on movement and the attempt to combine technique, speed and availability," said Ibrir. "That's our only chance because, physically, we'll never be as strong as the players from the rest of Africa or Germany."

Ibrir is well-placed to comment on Germany having faced them during his team's final stage of preparations. It was a match his side are unlikely to forget in a hurry. "We lost 6-0 and it was a brutal wake-up call," recounted Ibrir. "But that allowed us to measure how far we still have to go to reach the very highest level."

Despite that result, his team remain enthusiastic about the challenges ahead. "That's the best way of dealing with the difficulties of a World Cup," said Ibrir. "We'll be rubbing shoulders with teams of the highest level. It's a long-term investment that will help the players as they get older. It will help Algerian football continue its renaissance."