A rising name in European club football, Algeria's Islam Slimani could be a stand-out figure up front for his national team at the 2014 FIFA World Cup™, and the Sporting Lisbon star says that he and his teammates are looking to leave a mark in Brazil.
“Algeria has never got past the first round, so that's our goal,” he told FIFA.com. “We are flying to Brazil with ambitions. It will be our fourth appearance at the finals. We all know about the victory against [West] Germany in 1982 with the likes of [Rabah] Madjer, [Salah] Assad or [Lakhdar] Belloumi. We all want to leave a trace in the history of Algerian football and follow in their footsteps.”
Slimani, who will turn 26 during the finals, can look back at his first season in European football with some pride. Having signed for Sporting Lisbon in August last year from Algerian club CR Belouizdad, Slimani took a few weeks to break into the Sporting line-up, but once he managed to do that, there was no stopping him.
After being used mainly as a substitute and scoring a number of goals from the bench, Slimani made the most of an opportunity that presented itself earlier this year as he was given a starting role in the team. He scored in four consecutive games in March, including a winner against Porto that helped Lisbon finish above the reigning champions. Slimani ended the season tied for the second most goals on the team, finding the net eight times in 26 appearances - 16 of which were from the bench.
Sporting ended the season in second place behind Benfica, and the club's success has meant that many eyes have been focused on the talented attacking player. “This season, I discovered European football. I am happy with my first season during which I scored decisive goals. Sporting is a great team, and we managed to qualify for the next [UEFA] Champions League.”
But Slimani has put any thought of participating in that tournament aside for the moment as he is concentrating solely on his contribution to the show-piece event of world football: the FIFA World Cup.
The north Africans have been paired into Group H with Russia, Korea Republic and Belgium, whom many have earmarked as a dark horse in the competition. The 25-year-old said that Les Fennecs would not be scared of their opponents.
My job is to score goals.
“We do not want to have any regrets. We will play our game. We know that the group is difficult," Slimani said. "Belgium has great players like Eden Hazard and Vincent Kompany. They are the favourites in our group. I also know that South Korea is a very tough team, who have made it to the second round of the World Cup. Finally, Russia is a major nation. Fabio Capello knows us well as he played against the Algerian team in 2010 with England.”
Slimani still remembers the 2010 World Cup finals when Algeria finished bottom of their group after losing against the USA and Slovenia and playing out a goalless draw with England. “At the time, I was playing in the third division, and I did not think for one second that I could be in Brazil four years later," he said. It is certain that this is a dream for all the players.
"This will be the first time in my life that I go to Brazil. The opportunity of playing in Brazil means that I can play the World Cup in the country of football. I hope I’ll be up to the challenge on the field. My job is to score goals.”
In the department of goal scoring, Slimani names Romario and Ronaldinho as great strikers, but his personal favourite is former Barcelona forward Ronaldo. “Undoubtedly," Slimani said. "He could do everything. He was just amazing. Too bad he was injured during a part of his career.”
Slimani made his debut in the full Algerian side in May 2012 and scored his first international goal just a week later. He then played in all but one of Algeria's 2014 World Cup qualifiers, scoring five goals as the Foxes achieved their second consecutive appearance at the finals. The rising star says he is indebted to Bosnian coach Vahid Halilhozdic, who gave him his debut in the national team and will be leading Algeria in Brazil.
“He gave me my chance and gave me confidence," Slimani said of Halilhozdic. "He is a coach who has great football experience. He is a former striker, and this makes him feel things better than anyone. It is clear that he brought a lot to Algeria.”
As he heads into Algeria's first group game against Belgium on June 17, the striker is aware that there will be some pressure on the team to do well in Brazil. “For Algeria, it is an immense pride to play at the World Cup," he said. "When we play, we are constantly thinking of our people. We know that our country has come a long way and experienced very difficult things, so we will give all our heart.”