Algeria head coach Milovan Rajevac must be the envy of many of his peers. In stars like Islam Slimani, Riyad Mahrez, Sofiane Feghouli and Yacine Brahimi, he has a wealth of attacking weapons in Europe’s top leagues to choose from, each capable of carving open any defence unfortunate enough to stand in their way. It therefore comes as no surprise that Les Fennecs scored an impressive 25 goals in qualifying for the African Cup of Nations 2017, nine more than established rivals such as Tunisia and Congo DR.
However, the identity of their principal attacking threat throughout the campaign was less predictable. Often used to playing second fiddle to his illustrious team-mates, Dynamo Zagreb forward El Arabi Hilal Soudani finished the qualification stages as his team’s top goalscorer, finding the net on no fewer than seven occasions. His brace in the 6-0 victory over Lesotho at the start of September, Algeria’s first competitive fixture under Rajevac, went a long way to helping his country secure top place in Group J. Boosted by the result, Les Verts now go into the first match of the qualifying tournament for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ against Cameroon in the best possible shape.
“Confidence is always crucial, both as a striker and as a team. Winning matches is a habit, just like scoring goals. It’s all about momentum, so we can’t afford to slip up against Cameroon. The three points are vital to get the ball rolling. We can’t doubt ourselves for one minute. We need to play with confidence, right from the off. The way we start will be key,” the forward underlined when he met up with FIFA.com.
With 20 goals from his 38 caps, Soudani is this Algeria team’s second most prolific striker behind Islam Slimani, who has netted 23 times for the national side. In Croatia, where he plays his club football, he is also currently second in the scoring charts with five goals. Indeed, Soudani seems to have a close relationship with the number two. He even chose it as his shirt number in Zagreb, in homage to Chlef, the second region of Algeria, and its eponymous capital. “Those are my origins, my foundations. That number two is a tribute to my hometown and its people. It’s also a way of reminding me where I’ve come from,” he confided.
I’ve now played in the African Cup of Nations, the Champions League and even the World Cup. I’m proud, and very aware of how far I’ve come. I’m living my dream.
While his hometown club ASO Chlef clearly played an important role in his career – he played there between 1998 and 2011, winning the Algerian title in 2011 – Soudani’s ascendancy has not been without its setbacks. Despite his obvious ability, it took a long time for European football to sit up and take notice of this quick, skilful left-sided forward. “I’ve come a long way. In Algeria, where football is like a religion, everyone wants to make a career in the sport. So there are plenty of people on the starting line, but only a handful truly make it. You really have to fight to get there,” he admitted. “For my part, I’ve now played in the African Cup of Nations, the Champions League and even the World Cup. Sure, that’s not an end in itself. But I’m proud, and very aware of how far I’ve come. I’m living my dream.”
The European adventure
When the call eventually came, it was Portuguese club Vitoria Guimaraes that took the gamble on bringing him to Europe for the first time. And as well as being a reliable performer out on the field of play, Soudani has also proved to be a loyal employee – even when he has already moved on to pastures new. ASO Chlef aside, he has only played at two other clubs. “I only played at Vitoria for two years, but I will always be grateful to the club. They’re the ones who really gave me my big opportunity,” explained Soudrani. “I’m happy to have been able to play my own part in writing a new chapter in their rich history,” he added, in reference to the club’s Portuguese Cup triumph in 2013.
His next destination was Croatia and, more precisely, Dynamo Zagreb, where he has been playing since 2013. And despite attracting the interest of various Western European clubs, the ever-faithful Soudani chose to stay put during this summer’s transfer window. “I had a frank conversation with the chairman at the start of the season. He wanted me to stay another year. I accepted because this is another club to which I am truly indebted. It’s a legendary club, and I feel very much at home in Zagreb,” he explained. “But I also think that, emotions aside, it was the right decision. The Croatian league has more to offer than at first it might seem. I’m playing in the Champions League for the fourth year running. I’m as hungry and as confident as ever.”
This is good news for an Algerian side who need their striker to be at the top of his game for what is shaping up to be a tough qualifying campaign. In addition to the Indomitable Lions, who they face on 7 October, Les Guerriers du Désert have been drawn against Zambia and Nigeria in an ultra-competitive Group B. “We’re all big teams. It’s not going to be easy, but I’m confident,” stated Soudani, who was still visibly moved to recall his experiences at Brazil 2014. “It’s a really fond memory. We had an outstanding tournament, historic even! We did our people proud, and I dream of being able to experience those emotions again one day,” he concluded.
Despite his perennial status as second fiddle, this is one striker determined to play a leading role on the road to Russia 2018.