The young Algerian players were visibly disconsolate as they trudged from the field at the Ahmadu-Bello stadium in Kaduna on Thursday evening. Coach Otmane Ibrir's side had lost 2-0 to Uruguay, their second defeat in two Group F fixtures at the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2009 in Nigeria. But the north Africans are noted for their pride and resiliance. So it was no surprise that just a day later, the mood in the camp was upbeat and determined, as they approach their final match seeking to preserve their slender hopes of making the round of sixteen.
"That's the kind of unnecessary defeat you don't forget in a hurry. But we're not out of it yet," Mohammed Cherchar defiantly told FIFA.com, sounding pensive and resolute in the same breath. The tall defender is well aware that the Algerians' chances of making the last sixteen largely rest on events outside their immediate control. However, they can at least keep the back-door open by beating Korea Republic on Sunday in their third and final group fixture.
It is also a question of honour for Cherchar and his team-mates. "We've let our fans down, both in Nigeria and at home. That's why it's so important we beat the Koreans. We're even more determined than ever," the FAF Academy shooting star remarked. Ibrir's team performed with great credit in losing their opening game 1-0 to Italy, but went off the boil against the Uruguayans. "16 of the 21 squad members know each other well from the FAF Academy. We're a group that really sticks together, and we're basically a good unit. Now we have to show character."
Still in with a chance
Cherchar comes across as exceptionally relaxed and level-headed. The qualities evident from his interview with FIFA.com are also those he demonstrates at the heart of the Algerian defence. His reserves of composure will be badly needed against the quick Koreans: "I regard them as the best attacking team in our group. I think we'll have a lot of work on our hands at the back. But we'll give it 100 per cent. That'll put us in with a chance, and we intend to take it."
As they go about their business in the team hotel in Kaduna, the young Algerians come across as modest and a trifle shy, but also attentive. Away from the field of play, they seem to be revelling in every minute they spend at the FIFA U-17 World Cup, and for a good reason: it is the first time Algeria has sent a team to a FIFA finals at this age level. Three points against the South Koreans would ensure their memories of Nigeria include a dollop of sporting success as well. "Representing Algeria here is a huge honour for my team-mates and me. We're totally at home, because the people here are just as football-mad as we are."
Self-confessed Barcelona fan Cherchar is often seen using the internet, keeping abreast of the latest developments involving his team and the player he idolises: "I'd really like to be as good as Pique one day." The Barca starlet, himself a towering presence in defence, regularly appears on the biggest footballing stages at the age of just 22. "He and Nemanja Vidic are my role models. I watch them as closely as I can."
There is some way to go before Cherchar scales those kind of heights, but helping Algeria shut out the Koreans would rate as a notable achievement at an already rarefied level of the game. The Algerian way is to take it step by step, a characteristically modest but eminently sensible strategy for Cherchar and his team-mates.