Last week Qatari outfit and Stars League debutants Lekhwiya earned a special place in their country’s footballing history by claiming the league title in their first season in the top flight. In so doing they brought to an end a run of three successive league championships by Al Gharrafa and threw down the gauntlet to Qatar’s more established sides.
Credit for this outstanding achievement must go first and foremost to coach Djemal Belmadi, who managed what many regarded as an impossible feat in leading the team to their first-ever title.
FIFA.com spoke exclusively to the affable Algerian about his success with Lekhwiya, his ambitions for the Qatari club and his hopes for Algerian football.
FIFA.com: Congratulations on making history with Lekhwiya. Can you tell us what made it possible?
Djemal Belmadi: That’s the thing everyone’s asking here [in Qatar]. How can a club from the second division come out of nowhere and pull off such a difficult feat? As I see it, there are a number of factors behind our success, but the main one has to be the professionalism and commitment of the management, coaching staff and players. That, and discipline. I also tried to pass on some of the skills and experience I picked up in Europe and make the players feel a sense of responsibility and professionalism.
Did you think you could win the title at the start of the season?
I talked to the players and told them we have only one objective. When I said it was to win the championship they thought I was crazy. However, I explained that we have everything we need to succeed if we work hard and follow my plan. As time passed the players gradually came to believe in their ability to win, and in the end we managed it.
It’s a tremendous achievement considering you’re only 35 and this is your first coaching job. What does this mean to you on a personal level?
I haven’t had the chance to really think about what we’ve done because we’ve got more targets in our sights. Perhaps I’ll analyse things in month or so when I’m on holiday. My only thought is to keep on winning. We’ve got two local championships coming up - the Heir Apparent Cup and the Emir of Qatar Cup - and we’re going to try and pick up more silverware.
How did you feel when you won, as this was the first major title of your playing and coaching career?
It was an unbelievable feeling. When you do your job – trying as hard as you can – you’re doing it for that moment. I’m proud of the players that lifted the trophy, because it was a long, hard road.
Where does it rank in your list of personal achievements?
It’s up there, but I want to achieve more. We’re taking part in two domestic cup competitions, not to mention the fact that the club has big plans. We want to make our mark in Asia, especially in the AFC Champions League. Why not?
You’ve played under a variety of coaches over the years. Did any of them influence your own coaching style and which current tactician inspires you?
I’ve asked myself this question before and all I can say is that the job involves a lot of different skills. So it’s not that I was influenced by one coach in particular, but more that I tried to learn a lot of different things from a lot of different coaches. As for one that inspires me, I’d have to say Josep Guardiola, for what he’s achieved at Barcelona. I happen to enjoy the style of football he has them playing. It’s the best way to approach things, in my opinion.
You had an impressive playing career that encompassed spells with the likes of Marseilles, Celta Vigo and Manchester City. You must have some unforgettable memories of those days.
There’s a place in my heart for every one of those clubs. My career really started at Marseille and I’ve got wonderful memories of the place I cut my teeth in top-flight football. I learned a lot of important things about football there. After France, I played in Spain for Celta Vigo, which was a unique experience in a totally different kind of league. Later I had a spell in England, which was wonderful. I gained a lot of experience from playing in all these championships.
Curiously you didn’t play that often for Algeria. What do think restricted your appearances for the national side?
I played 25 internationals and I would have played more but back then the match scheduling between Africa and Europe clashed. The Algerian team played a lot of matches when I had club commitments, so I had to choose between playing for my country and keeping my place at the club. That was difficult for me, as you never want to lose your place in the team you play for regularly. These days, what with FIFA setting aside dates for internationals, the scheduling is easier for everybody.
If you could change one thing about your career, what would it be and why?
I would have liked to play more in England. I had some terrible times there due to injuries, so if I could go back in time and change anything, that would be it. At the same time, though, I’m proud of what I’ve achieved because every second I spent on the pitch, I gave everything I had. I’ve no regrets when it comes to my playing career.
Just going back to Algerian football, how would you rate the general standard of play, especially in light of their showing at the last FIFA World Cup™?
The standard was excellent last year with Algeria’ qualifying for the World Cup and reaching the semi-finals of the Africa Cup of Nations. We could have done more in the World Cup; the team were good enough to have got past the first round. All I want is for the country’s FA, the professional players and others to maintain their commitment to develop the game, because we have to keep moving forward. After the World Cup there was a feeling that the quality was dropping off. We lost a friendly at home to Gabon right afterwards, but in the knockout stages of the Africa Cup of Nations, we got our first victory in recent memory over Morocco. We have to keep working to develop all facets of the game.
Do you have any ambitions to coach the Algerian national side one day?
Right now my main focus is on Lekhwiya and we’re only just getting going. There have been offers, but all my attention is on the club. On the other hand, who knows what might happen in the future? These days, though, I don’t look ahead much: I try and live in the moment and enjoy it, so of course everything is bound up with my career at Lekhwiya. After Lekhwiya, who knows?