- Assad couldn't believe he was playing against stars he'd seen on TV
- Algeria edged West Germany in a colossal upset
- 'Hellos' from Pele and Beckenbauer thrilled Assad
Former Algeria striker Salah Assad was only 20 when fellow north Africans Tunisia travelled to the 1978 FIFA World Cup Argentina™, where the great Tarak Dhiab and his team-mates famously defeated Mexico 3-1. Inspired by their neighbours’ success, Algeria qualified for their first World Cup in 1982, thanks to a hard-fought win over Nigeria in Constantine. Reaching Spain 1982 was a dream come true for the Algerians.
“I was a young man when I saw Tunisia play in the World Cup in 1978," Assad told FIFA.com. "We all made a pledge at the time to make sure Algeria qualified for their first world finals.
“We were drawn in the same group as European champions West Germany, Chile, one of the top teams in South America, and Austria, who were one of the best sides in Europe at the time, and we were so excited about going to Spain. We followed the West German players on TV and in the newspapers, and we couldn’t wait to meet them.
“The World Cup brings together the best players in the world, which is why it’s such an important tournament to play in. It was an amazing experience and I’ll never forget it.”
Algeria began their Spanish campaign in style, stunning West Germany 2-1 in their opening game: “We warmed up for the West Germany match by playing Northern Ireland, Real Madrid and some other big teams in friendlies, and we went into the game as well prepared as we could be,” said Assad.
“Our opponents didn’t know anything about us and I think that was one of the reasons for our success. That gave us all the encouragement we needed in an historic match that we ended up winning.”
Algeria's defeat of West Germany left the world gobsmacked and earned their players praise from some of the biggest names in the game. “What we achieved was amazing," Assad said. "I used to follow Pele and Beckenbauer as a fan, and there they were, saying 'hello' to me.”
Assad then earned himself a place in the history of the tournament by scoring a first-half brace in Algeria’s final match against Chile. “We lost to Austria, and afterwards I asked my coach if I could lead the attack instead of playing out wide, while making him a promise that I’d score against Chile,” he explained.
“I didn’t see a lot of the ball on the wing in the previous match, so he decided to leave Lakhdar Belloumi on the bench and play me in his place. I kept my promise by scoring twice and hitting the post.”
One of Assad’s team-mates at the time was Rabah Madjer, who also starred in Spain and scored a memorable goal against the West Germany. Discussing the virtues of his legendary colleague, Assad said: “The strength of a team lies on its flanks. Algeria were lucky enough to have Madjer on the right and Assad on the left. Every club wishes they had a duo like that.
“Madjer was skilful and fast, and we were pretty similar players. Though we were stationed on the wings, we did our fair share of work in the midfield and then got forward to try and score."
Sadly for Algeria, they were unable to progress beyond the group phase at Spain 1982, with a 2-0 defeat against Austria in their second match ultimately putting paid to their chances as their 3-2 win over Chile in their final outing proved fruitless.
Looking back on their painful elimination from the tournament, Assad said: “We lost to Austria, who were not as strong as West Germany and Chile, because the coaches sent out the same team as in the first match. Belloumi was not at his best and should have been rested, and the midfield had problems getting the ball forward to the strikers. Our opponents played the same game we did: sitting back and then hitting on the counter. Losing to them cost us a place in the next round.”
No excuses for '86
Algeria bounced back from their first-round exit in Spain by qualifying for Mexico 1986. Coached by Rabah Saadane, a young Fennec side had gained experience through playing at the previous tournament, though success would prove elusive on their second world finals appearance.
“Spain 1982 was our first World Cup and we didn’t know what playing in a big tournament was all about,” said Assad. “We didn’t have any excuses in 1986, though, and the team could have gone far.”
The Algerians kicked off what would be a disappointing campaign in Mexico with a 1-1 draw against Northern Ireland, before going down 1-0 to Brazil and then 3-0 to Spain.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t learn the lessons from the mistakes we’d made four years earlier,” recalled Assad. “A problem came up the night before the Northern Ireland game and it had a negative impact on the players’ morale. We ended up getting a draw against a team we should have beaten easily.”
Explaining what happened next, he said: “We played really well against Brazil, even though we lost to them, and then we were beaten by Spain and went out. If we’d beaten the [Northern] Irish, we would have gone through to the next round. It was an easier group than in 1982.”