Lakhdar Belloumi: The Wizard of Maghreb

Photo: http://www.sportschau.de/

Few players are so synonymous with a single match as Lakhdar Belloumi. Spending his entire career in Algeria, with the exception of brief spell in Qatar, Belloumi was essentially reliant on international tournaments in order to showcase his ability to the world. Had Belloumi played in Europe, he would no doubt be remembered for much more than one game, such was his talent, but he was sadly stripped of the opportunity to do so. Having spent the majority of his career at GC Mascara, Belloumi is widely regarded as the finest footballer to ever grace from Algeria, and one of the greatest to emerge from the continent of Africa.

A majestic player to watch, Belloumi was capable of producing magical things with the ball at his feet. An exceptional dribbler, with unerring technique, Belloumi was also a tireless runner and despite his individual qualities, he was every bit a team player. Born in Mascara, Belloumi is regarded as the most famous individual to hail from the city, and joined his local team GC Mascara at the age of 19. He instantly impressed, earning himself a call-up to the national team, making his debut at the age of 20.

After just a year at Mascara, Belloumi had to leave in order to complete his national service requirements. For his two years of national service, Belloumi joined MP Oran, who were experiencing a ‘Golden Era’ at the time, and Belloumi played alongside a number of his new international teammates. Once his two years of service were up, Belloumi joined MP Alger, where he played for two seasons before rejoining Mascara. Over his career, Belloumi made something of a habit of spending short spells at different clubs before re-joining Mascara; he signed for his hometown club on a staggering six different occasions.

Shortly after his national service, Belloumi was thrusted into international competitions. In 1979 it was the Mediterranean Games, and in 1980 both the Olympics and the African Cup of Nations; Algeria were the runners-up in the latter and Belloumi shone in all three. In 1981, still aged just 23, Belloumi was named the African Player of the Year, and was now a fully-fledged star and the hope of the Algerian National Team. It was a year later though, that the nation’s ‘Golden Boy’ would really do the country proud. Belloumi dazzled defences in qualifying and Algeria qualified for the World Cup for the first time in their history.

Few have had as many ups and downs as Algeria did at their World Cup debut. Algeria’s group featured West Germany, Austria, Chile, and themselves. In their opening game, Algeria shocked the world, in what remains one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history. European champions two years earlier, West Germany were one of the favourites for the tournament, and expected to make cannon-fodder of the minnows of Algeria. Belloumi ran the show, the playmaker was at his scintillating best; scoring one and creating another as Algeria ran out historic 2-1 winners.

Ecstasy was followed by controversy in Spain. Victory against the West Germans was followed by defeat to Austria and victory over Chile. The results left Algeria second, level on points with Austria and 2 points ahead of West Germany. Algeria knew that anything other than a narrow West German victory would see them through to the knock-out stages. What followed remains one of the most scandalous events in World Cup history. In what has become known as the ‘Disgrace of Gijon’ in reference to where the game was played, or more vitriolically as ‘Anschluss’ in Algeria, West Germany won the game 1-0.

Having taken the lead after just 10 minutes, West Germany were content in the knowledge that such a victory would see them go through, as were Austria. West Germany began playing possession football, playing short passes, mostly between the defence and midfield in their own half. The Austrian team were happy enough for their opposition to do so, making little effort to close them down or disrupt their play. Algerians were unsurprisingly infuriated, although large numbers of Spaniards, Germans and Austrians were equally displeased with the obvious fixing of the game. One commentator refused to comment on the game and a German fan even burnt his national flag in outrage. The local Spanish paper printed the match report in the crime section instead of the sports pages. Algeria protested the game’s outcome but to no avail, the rules were changed after 1982 to ensure both teams kicked off their final group game at the same time.

Algeria left the tournament as beloved losers, and Belloumi had been the star man once more. Juventus and Barcelona both attempted to sign the now 24-year-old but Algerian rules meant he was prevented from playing abroad until the age of 27. In 1985, when Belloumi had turned 27, Juventus played Mascara in a friendly and were obviously still impressed by the playmaker. The Italian giants attempted to sign him once more, despite the fact they already had Michel Platini playing in Belloumi’s natural attacking midfield role. Negotiations went smoothly and with the deal almost complete, Belloumi broke his leg.

The injury was cruel and couldn’t have been more poorly timed. Such a serious injury obviously prevented any chance of a move, and put him out of action for an extended period of time. Belloumi was terse and understated, yet clearly upset by the injury; he commented, “It was a real shame for me that I couldn’t go”. It would prove the last time one of Europe’s major teams tried to sign Belloumi, and his chance of European success and international acclaim had been stripped from him. Domestic success continued, he won titles in 1984 and 1988, as well as continuing to star for the Algerian national team.

Algeria qualified for the World Cup once more in 1986, but the competition would prove less entertaining and productive for the country this time round in Mexico; as another attacking midfielder, from Argentina rather than Algeria, stole the show. Handed a particularly tricky group, featuring international heavyweights Brazil and Spain, Algeria only picked up a point against Northern Ireland, exiting the competition in the group stages once more. Belloumi never won a competition with his country; finishing as a runner-up once and in third place twice in the African Cup of Nations.

His legacy was almost tainted by a 20 year arrest warrant. During a World Cup qualifier between Egypt and Algeria in 1989, a brawl broke out involving both players and supporters. In the incident, which took place in Cairo, Belloumi was accused of throwing a broken bottle which had struck and seriously injured an Egyptian doctor. Belloumi repeatedly protested his innocence, as did those who were at the scene at the time, but the case grew and grew until 2006, when he was officially added to the Interpol list. Algerian and Egyptian authorities eventually came together in 2009 to clear Belloumi of all charges, and his name was finally cleared.

A European move may have denied Belloumi of international recognition, but everyone who saw him play was left with no doubt in their minds. Even Pele, when attending an Algeria game, commented on the technical prowess and ability of the country’s star player. Sporadic spells at a number of Algerian sides and one Qatari side littered Belloumi’s later career, before he hung up his boots in 1999 at his boyhood club Mascara, at the age of 41, 10 years after he had retired from international football. A brief flitter into management, involving the national team, ended in 2006. Although he has departed the game, Belloumi’s legacy lives on. It is widely considered that he invented the ‘Blind Pass’ and he was recently voted the fourth greatest African player of the twentieth century.

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One Comment

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  1. An extraordinary legend. All genuine football aficianados will gladly keep the legend alive. Much appreciation for the article.

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