“I make a lot of my decisions with the Algerian national team in mind,” Essaid Belkalem told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview.
“The Algerian fans are really counting on us, and so we try to give 100 per cent. I’ve always been willing to make sacrifices for my country,” continued the 24-year-old Watford defender, who is readying himself to face Burkina Faso with a place at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ at stake.
The first leg of this winner-takes-all qualifying clash is scheduled for Saturday 12 October in Ouagadougou, while the return match will take place on 19 November in Blida.
A product of JS Kabylie’s youth system, Belkalem made his professional debut in 2008, gradually building a reputation as one of Algerian football’s most up-and-coming centre-backs. After having secured the domestic league title in his first year and the Algerian Cup in 2011, he left the north African nation’s most successful club at the end of last season to sign a five-year deal with Udinese.
A regular for Algeria at various age categories since 2007, he did not think twice about jeopardising his relationship with his new employers – who had provided him with a gateway to Europe – in order to defend his national colours.
“It got a bit complicated with Udinese. I was supposed to start pre-season training with them on 1 July, but I’d already committed myself to playing at the World Military Cup in Azerbaijan. The upshot was that I arrived almost three weeks later than planned. All of the players had been training together; the team had already taken shape,” he explained.
While his future in Italy did not look bright, it was a native of those shores, London-based Gianfranco Zola, who has coached Watford since 2012, who provided him with a glimmer of hope.
“He had already shown interest in me last year, and he’d kept up-to-date with my situation. He called me to find out what my plans were. There was no time left to search for another club, and as I was involved in Algeria’s World Cup qualifying campaign, it was out of the question for me to sit on the bench for six months, so I decided to go to Watford on loan so that I could get some playing time,” said Belkalem.
In England’s second tier, the robust centre-half discovered “a committed, compact and tough style of football that goes at 100 miles an hour.” Aware of his lack of summer break and truncated pre-season, Zola came to an agreement with the Algerian player to take things slowly, subsequently fielding him in around half of Watford’s matches so far this season.
Moving from Serie A to the English Championship could certainly never be viewed as a step up, but Belkalem is simply pleased to be taking orders from a man with a winning mentality and an appreciation of the Beautiful Game, in a club that can realistically hope to be playing Premier League football next season.
And the imposing defender’s reasons for instigating the move have eventually been proven correct, as Algeria coach Vahid Halilhodzic is likely to require his services for the upcoming double-header with Burkina Faso. Against Les Etalons, who have been on a fantastic run since reaching the final of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations earlier this year, Belkalem does not expect an easy time of it.
“I think that Burkina Faso’s strength lies in their attack. They’ve got good players there who are quick and lively, as well as hard-working midfielders. And their two centre-backs are also very experienced. They’re a strong team and there’s no doubt that they’ll cause us problems. I hope that we’ll be up to the job. We played them just recently, so we know their squad and individual players quite well.”
The Fennec Foxes would do well to not pay too much attention to that friendly victory over Paul Put’s charges in June, however, and therefore avoid approaching the two games in over-confident mood.
“We’ll have to stay focused, but not focus too much on our opponents. We’re all acutely aware that this is a turning point in our lives. You don’t get a chance to play at the World Cup every month. Brazil is within touching distance. We’ve had a good campaign up to now, and we deserve this chance to qualify. It’s going to be hard, but we’ll do everything we can to make it happen,” concluded Belkalem.