Long considered to be the ‘next Zidane’ by fans in France, Algerian playmaker Mourad Meghni appears to finally coping with this weighty expectation and is currently pushing hard for a place in Algeria’s squad for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™.
Barring another injury like the ones that have blighted his career so far – his delicate frame has done him no favours in that regard – it is more than likely that Meghni will be showing off his skills in South Africa this June.
Nearly ten years ago it was in French colours that the promising attacking midfielder played first impressed on the world stage, helping the country of his birth to secure the FIFA U-17 World Championship in Trinidad and Tobago in 2001. The Caribbean adventure was one of many successes achieved by this golden generation of French footballers, who had already reached the final of the UEFA European U-17 Championship the year before, and were destined to go on to win the prestigious Toulon U-21 international tournament in 2004.
“Mourad’s footballing brain is truly exceptional,” said his international coach at the time, Rene Girard. "He has an innate sense of improvisation. With the technique that he possesses, what he needs to do is bring others into play more often – he is always likely to create something out of nothing."
Back then, Meghni was already making a name for himself. Having spent three years at France’s national football academy in Clairefontaine, the Paris native left home for Italy in 2000, joining Bologna’s youth team at the tender age of 16. A new language and unfamiliar culture awaited him, making the transition far from easy.
Struggling with a difficult environment and constant comparisons to Zidane, Meghni’s progress was erratic, and though he did make his Serie A debut in 2002, he was never able to live up to the expectations others had of him. Following 37 appearances in three years, Meghni opted for a return to his roots in 2005 in an attempt to kick-start his career. But once back in France, at Sochaux, his reputation again overshadowed him, with fans tending to regard him as a prodigal son.
“The injuries and associations with Zinedine Zidane have certainly not helped," he said exclusively to FIFA.com. “Although I was obviously flattered to be mentioned alongside such an incredible player, even if I tried not to think about it too much, it inevitably put a little bit of added pressure on me. My injuries have always been extremely painful – I’ve not had much luck in that department. Even during my best season at Bologna, I was twice out through back problems and once with thigh trouble. I’ve had to remain strong, as it’s enough to drive you crazy.”
The dreadful season spent at Sochaux, where he played just 16 matches, did offer one silver lining: by not living up to fans’ expectations, he was at last able to rid himself of the label that had so haunted him previously. After managing to become a regular in Bologna’s first team upon returning to Italy, other clubs began to show considerable interest in the midfielder, with giants Lazio finally securing his signature in 2007.
Since joining the Rome-based club, Meghni has fulfilled the role of luxury substitute, and with the spotlight no longer shining on him so fiercely, he continues to develop and put in good, consistent performances in this his 26th year.
It was not surprising then when the player expressed a desire to resume his international career in 2009. Following various discussions with Algeria coach Rabah Saadane, Meghni eventually decided that he would defend the colours of his father’s homeland. He was called up in August for a friendly match against Uruguay (1-0) and has not been omitted from an Algerian squad since. His close control and ability to conserve possession attracted much praise in the aftermath of Les Fennecs’ historic FIFA World Cup play-off victory over Egypt in Sudan.
Highly skilled and an excellent decision-maker, he is just as proficient playing behind one or two strikers as he is dropping a little further back into central midfield, where he shows remarkable vision.
“From the first time he met up with the squad, we could see that here was a lad with an incredible mind,” revealed Saadane in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. “And because of that he quickly integrated into the group. It didn’t take long for us to see what his immense technical and tactical abilities could bring to our side. Unfortunately he’s not yet been able to perform at his peak due to some niggly injuries he’s been carrying. I pray that the problems his body has been suffering from will have cleared up by the time the World Cup comes along.”
Sidelined a few weeks back by tendinitis in his left knee, Meghni is now fighting to get back to his best as quickly as possible. Speaking from his rehabilitation centre, he is able to confirm that “the knee is getting better and better, but I’m not recovered yet. I don’t really even know when I’ll be able to start training again. Three to four weeks from now, at least. The timeframe look a bit tight, but I’ve been working hard so that I can quickly get myself back to full fitness.
"I can’t imagine missing this World Cup. I haven’t yet been able to show what I’m really capable of in an Algerian shirt, and I hope to be able to do so in South Africa.” A wish that is bound to be echoed all over Algeria.