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Africa Cup of Nations

Afcon 2019: Algeria vs. Nigeria - Willingness to seize the moment proves the difference

6:13 AM WAT 15/07/2019
Mahrez free-kick - Algeria vs Nigeria
Les Fennecs were clearly superior on the night, despite all the evidence indicating they should not be.

In the week the remake of the timeless classic ‘The Lion King’ was released, there was a reminder on Sunday night of what the sagely Mufasa called “the circle of life”.

The concept of a hierarchical food chain is manifest in nature, and all living things have, and know, their place. So it proves in football also: having preyed upon South Africa in the quarter-final of the Africa Cup of Nations, Nigeria were in turn set upon by Algeria in the same way. Not just a defeat, but one which showed just how wide the chasm is between the sides.

Algeria have been the most impressive side in the competition – in their application, in the clarity of their identity and gameplan, in their cohesion. These three things are rarely found in one place in international football, and yet Djamel Belmadi’s side have found a way to mine them inside the 12 months he has been in charge.

The challenge for the Super Eagles was to come up with an approach which would unsettle a side with no glaring weaknesses.

Rohr, incumbent for three years, has preached the gospel of patience, trying the faith of many and driving a philosophical discussion: at what point does belief become delusion?

His insistence on the youthfulness of his team, while useful in terms of deflecting pressure, betrays a man who struggles to understand when it becomes necessary to seize a moment, to ride a wave.

At the World Cup in Russia last year, his lack of ambition, faced with a palpably weak Argentina side, left a bad taste. However, his protestations just about flew: the Super Eagles were the youngest team at the tournament, and the individual quality gradient might well have been too steep for them to scale in spite of La Albiceste’s collective dysfunction.

How then can this latest disappointment be explained away? It is not so much the result, but the manner of it; as great a side as Algeria is, they do not dwarf their Nigerian counterparts in terms of ability or profile, Riyad Mahrez aside. Why then did it look like even parity against this side was a blight on football, some miscarriage of justice?

The difference, if one is immediately apparent, can be glimpsed in the mentality of the helmsmen: when the white-hot hand of opportunity rests on Rohr’s shoulder, the German recoils; his Algerian counterpart has let it brand his flesh and start an infectious fever in the rest of his side.

Speaking in a press conference before the start of the tournament, Belmadi said, “I am often lectured about a transition period. I put in 100% every day to win the competition. Why wait?”

The contrast between this attitude and Rohr’s could not be starker. For all the talk of Nigeria having missed out on the previous two Africa Cups of Nations, Algeria were eliminated in the Group Stage in 2017, and were beaten home and away in World Cup qualifying by Nigeria two years ago.

Algeria FA president Kheireddine Zetchi, when he appointed Belmadi last August, described the country’s football as “sick”. Yet, it was Belmadi who was eager to seize the moment, unwilling to give himself an out by claiming a “project”, or some similarly airy, nebulous term.

Rohr, by contrast, once again failed to. Against a side which had played 120 minutes and penalties in the previous round, and had a day’s less rest, the fortuitous equaliser should have brought on a second wind. Instead, as Algeria flagged physically, the German dithered.

“Our biggest mistake was maybe looking forward to extra-time,” he admitted after the game.

If ever a quote more aptly captured an individual’s flaw.