Absent from planet football's top table since the 1986 FIFA World Cup Mexico™, Algeria are now just six matches away from a place at South Africa 2010. Having overcome the likes of Korea/Japan 2002 quarter-finalists Senegal in order to reach the third and final round of African Zone qualifying, Les Fennecs (The Desert Foxes) kick off their Group C campaign away to Rwanda.
In an exclusive interview ahead of his side's opening encounter on 28 March, Marseille midfielder Karim Ziani told FIFA.com how Algeria are "in with a shout", before underlining the importance of head coach Rabah Saadane. "This generation has got into the habit of playing together. The squad hasn't changed much because the incoming coach was smart enough to keep the core the same and that's paid off.
"It can be difficult at national team level to do things automatically because you don't spend much time together. We'd been lacking this stability for some time," said Ziani of Saadane, who took over from Frenchman Jean-Michel Cavalli in October 2007 after the team's failure to qualify for the CAF Africa Cup of Nations Ghana 2008.
"All the players are playing at top clubs and it's only logical that the national team is making progress. But we need to pick up points away from home to take the next step and reach South Africa," said Ziani, whose team must negotiate away encounters against Rwanda, Zambia and fierce rivals Egypt over the course of their Group C bid.
"We're on the right track even if everything isn't perfect. We put three goals past a Senegal side famed for being strong at the back, and we won 3-0 against Liberia and 1-0 against Gambia, who didn't lose any other matches," continued a player who, along with Slimane Raho and Lounes Gaouaoui, has made the most appearances thus far on the qualifying trail.
"We've got pedigree, we know where we're going. Rwanda and Zambia are tough opponents not to be underestimated but the big favourites in this group are Egypt, not us. Collectively they are very strong, they've got a great chemistry because a lot of their players play for the same club and the vast majority play in Africa. But we can do something. On paper, individually, we're a match for them providing we give it our all."
Given their opening match takes them to Kigali before a home clash game against the Egyptians, Les Fennecs will soon discover if they are genuinely capable of ending their followers' long wait for another FIFA World Cup appearance. "We'll need to wait until the first set of (three) matches are over to see if we're capable of positioning ourselves to go all the way," said Ziani.
"It would have been better to start off with a home game because away matches in Africa are always difficult. But in another way it's not so bad because we're flaky away from home and it's a good test for us right off the bat."
Indeed, though expectation levels are already building around the team, talk of Algeria hitting the heights of the golden era of the 1980s and early 1990s will remain premature unless they can clinch a South Africa berth. "There's a huge wave of enthusiasm in the country, we're just six matches away," said Ziani.
"We would have preferred the World Cup to be held closer to our country, given the fervour of our supporters. But it's still great that it's going to be in Africa. That shows that the continent is moving forward."