When he was appointed Algeria coach in 2007, Rabah Saadane was given a very clear brief: to end the nation’s lengthy spell in the international wilderness by steering them to the FIFA World Cup™ finals for the first time since Mexico 1986.
If anyone could achieve the task it was Saadane, a man better acquainted than most with the ways of the Desert Foxes, having previously coached them on four separate occasions between 1981 and 2004. An assistant coach to Mahieddine Khalef at Spain 1982, he was in charge of the side that took on the world again four years later. And with his latest qualification success, he has maintained his proud record of being involved in every one of Algeria’s FIFA World Cup appearances.
Saadane and his charges were forced to take a circuitous route to South Africa. Drawn into a competitive qualification group alongside Zambia, Rwanda and eternal rivals Egypt, Les Fennecs only squeezed into the finals courtesy of a dramatic play-off win over the Pharaohs in Sudan. But having accomplished his hazardous mission, Saadane is now setting his sights on further success in his third world finals, as he explains in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: There are a little over 100 days to go before the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa begins. How do you think preparations are going?
Rabah Saadane: I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. The South African government have taken on a huge responsibility in agreeing to host the first World Cup on African soil. I think they’re making every effort to do Africa proud, and the Local Organising Committee, which is working closely with FIFA, has been making some reassuring comments. I really feel there are no grounds for concern.
Are you expecting a good FIFA World Cup finals then?
Yes, of course. I think it’s going to be a fantastic World Cup, especially with it being winter there. The weather conditions should help teams perform better and I think we’ll see better quality football as a result.
You have taken Algeria to the finals after a 24-year absence. What were your feelings when the whistle went at the end of the play-off game with Egypt last November?
I was so happy, especially because I was the last coach to take Algeria to the World Cup, back in 1986. Obviously, I would have preferred my country to have qualified for the World Cup before now, but I am thrilled to be taking the team back to the finals. Even more so because the competition’s taking place in South Africa, the first time it’s been held in Africa. It’s a symbolic achievement.
They are three great teams of course, but the objective for our young players was to reach the World Cup in the first place. Now that they’ve achieved that there’s no pressure on them whatsoever.
What was the key moment of the campaign?
Beating Egypt 3-1 in Blida last June and then Zambia 2-0 in Chililabombwe a few days later. Those two wins put us top of the group with seven points, three clear of second place, and represented a huge step towards qualification. I think I can safely say that those back-to-back wins were the turning point for us.
You have been drawn in a tough group along with England, USA and Slovenia. How do you rate your chances?
They are three great teams of course, but the objective for our young players was to reach the World Cup in the first place. Now that they’ve achieved that there’s no pressure on them whatsoever. That said, we still have our role to play, and we’re going to be doing everything we can to make a go of this World Cup, to give it our all. Our aim is to enjoy ourselves against the best teams in the world, starting with the teams in our group, and to put maximum effort into them, no matter what the results. It’s wonderful to be going there I can tell you.
You have just contested the CAF African Cup of Nations Angola 2010, where you reached the semi-finals after a slow start. What lessons did you learn from the competition?
There were a lot of lessons for us. I was concerned about the climate at the start of the competition and I was also apprehensive about the effect a poor tournament might have on us just three months before the World Cup. Nevertheless the competition helped bring the team together more and allowed us to make some tactical and technical improvements. We came out of it stronger I think.
What pleased you most about the team?
We improved as a unit and we retained possession of the ball much better. During the qualification campaign we were under pressure to get results and that affected out performances a little. But in the African Cup of Nations we overcame the conditions and kept hold of the ball more and moved it around. On top of that, we also switched our tactics around effectively, and we used players in positions they weren’t necessarily used to, especially up front. That’s all been very useful for us with the World Cup coming up, and it’s going to be helpful in the long term too.