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Algeria hold heads high as sole Arab presence in Brazil Belgium justify tag

BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil, June 18, (RTRS): Despite losing their opening match, Algeria fans were still beaming with pride at their team’s performance and status as the only Arab nation present at the World Cup. Algeria went down 2-1 to highly rated Belgium on Tuesday, yet they at least scored a goal at the finals for the first time since 1986 and were on course for a famous upset until the Europeans struck twice in the last 20 minutes. Aware the Arab region’s hopes rest on his team, despite his own Franco-Bosnian roots, coach Vahid Halilhodzic praised his players as “heroic” and took heart ahead of the remaining Group H games against South Korea and Russia.

“We came so close to writing a glorious passage in football history,” said Algerian lawyer Brahim Kateb, 37, draped in the green-and-white national flag with a red star and crescent. “I am so sad we lost, yet so proud of what we showed to the world. It is a time of many mixed emotions,” the fan added. Algeria was also the sole representative for the Middle East and North Africa at the 2010 World Cup, though pride was dented by failing to score and finishing bottom of their group. There has been an injection of fresh talent since then, with the 2014 “Desert Foxes” side constructed around French-born players drawn from the massive migrant population in Europe.

Against Belgium, the Algerians showed tactical guile and steel at the back along with a willingness to drive forward, especially in the first half before they began to tire. They also wore their Muslim faith proudly, kneeling in prayer together near the corner flag in front of their fans to celebrate Sofiane Feghouli’s successful penalty to open the scoring. Few in global football circles noticed when Algeria recently crept above Ivory Coast to become Africa’s highest team in FIFA’s rankings despite the absence of big-name stars. “We are not a bad team at all these days,” said Algerian scientist Amr Kadi, 33, hoarse from shouting his team on.

“We deserve to be here and to represent our region. You should see all the messages and texts and emails from people supporting Algeria all around the Arab region.” Algeria’s World Cup appearance has helped divert attention away from worries at home over the fragile health of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and political turmoil in neighboring nations. Many fans in nearby Egypt and Tunisia believe acute unrest in their nations undermined their own qualifying campaigns. “We are here to have fun, to make Arab peoples proud and happy,” said 52-year-old businessman and Algeria fan Laouika Bohran.
“Even if we lose, at least we made it here, right?”

Belgium breathed a sigh of relief after edging past Algeria 2-1 on Tuesday to get their World Cup campaign off to a winning start but the depth of their squad looks set to carry them well past the group stage. The Belgians, who breezed through the qualifiers unbeaten, have arrived in Brazil as one of the top title favourites with arguably their best team in a generation. Yet a lacklustre first half and a below-par performance by some of their top players, including Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, had them fretting at halftime before a dominant second period that confirmed their status as Group H favourites.

Wilmots has his talented substitutes to thank for the win as Marouane Fellaini and Dries Mertens scored late in the game to turn things around after Algeria’s first half lead. It is that depth of quality that makes Belgium so dangerous with more than 11 players capable of playing top level football. Belgium had 10 shots on goal compared to Algeria’s one as they outclassed their opponents throughout the match but their World Cup opener did give them the jitters initially. With hugely talented players such as Thomas Vermaelen, Kevin Mirallas, Nicolas Lombaerts and Adnan Januzaj left on the bench, Belgium have lots of firepower in reserve for the coming games. Not many World Cup teams can boast substitutes of such calibre and then have the luxury of not playing them.

“We have a very good backroom with very good substitutes,” Wilmots said. “I have very powerful players.” Belgium have along history in the World Cup and were semi-finalists back in 1986 but the team had not qualified for the tournament since 2002. There was more good news later on Tuesday with group rivals Russia and South Korea drawing 1-1, leaving Belgium alone at the top of the section. “We have three points. Now we’ll rehydrate, go home and relax. With three points we’re nowhere,” said Wilmots, who as an attacking midfielder was part of four Belgium World Cup teams. They next face Russia on Sunday at the Maracana.

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