Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Algeria October/November 2015

Four matches in Algeria including the CAF Champions League final in Algiers, the Super Cup in Constantine and two league games.

After picking up my passport with the Algerian visa I travelled to Gatwick to stay overnight before getting an early morning BA flight to Algiers.

Where it was bright, mild and dry.

One of the issues you soon realise on arrival into Algeria is that not everything works.
Start with the ATM’s in the airport - there are five - and none of them functioned at midday on this Thursday.

So I changed some euros and got a taxi to my hotel.

After settling in I asked where the Algiers matches were being staged.
I was assured (‘200%’) that MC were playing at the stadium in Bologhine.

But on arrival by taxi it was evident that they were not playing there and in fact they were at the large 5 July stadium, some way out of the centre.
That entailed a prolonged uphill ride in slow traffic resulting in a late arrival.

But at least I witnessed a surprising comeback by the visitors.

MC implode.

29th October MC Alger 3 RC Arbaa 3   Ligue 1   c. 17,000 (c. 800 away)

The impressive main stadium in Algiers is mostly a substantial two tiers with a lower level along one side.
A reasonable number had come to support RC and they were informally separated from the home fans.
The main home ultras, the ‘Green Corsairs’ were in the Virage Sud and they supplied plenty of noise throughout.

It was a match that seemed all over with about 17 minutes remaining as MC were 3-0 up after goals from Abid, Karaoui (a nice left foot strike) and Hachoud (following up a goalie parry)
But Yettou volleyed in what seemed a consolation on 73 minutes and that gave the away team some encouragement.

Two set plays, one in the final minute, completed an unlikely comeback.
Salif Keita converted a free kick and Salim Mahsas headed in a corner to send the visiting fans into ecstasy.

That feeling was not shared by the home contingent who soon expressed their frustration and anger at their teams capitulation (against the league’s bottom team)

Meanwhile I exited to try to find a taxi while the ructions continued inside the ground.

Eventually, after a tour of part of Algiers and a conversation with a local, I was back at the hotel.

Good Dey.

30th October  NA Hussein Dey 2 JS Kabylie 1   Ligue 1   c. 8,000 (c. 1,000 away)

No problems with finding this stadium, the 20th August 1955 stade, as it was close to my hotel in the Belouizdad area of the city.
And there was clearly groups of fans arriving some time before kickoff as I tried to find somewhere to eat nearby.

That was hard because of Friday prayers - the shops being shut.
So the only option was a costly snack in the hotel prior to strolling round to the stadium.

Inside this old style ground, overlooked by apartments, the locals can generate plenty of atmosphere.
The ‘Dey Boys’ to the right build up the noise and the ‘main stand’ often joins in.
Just three sides are accessible - one end being interesting for its vintage but not suitable for current use.

The large group of away fans, supporting historically the most successful team in Algeria, were opposite.
An indication of the state of their team is shown by the fan’s flags being upside down.

That will no doubt continue as it was not a great performance by KSC.

The game was played at what seemed a faster pace than yesterday’s although with many misplaced passes.
After an even beginning the home side went ahead when striker Ahmed Gasmi was put through to drive in the opener.

That was on 39 minutes - a good time to score.
After the break JSK achieved more play and eventually following some pressure they got a leveller via a close range volley from Mohamed Boulaouidet.

However the home fans were not to be denied and Mourad Benayad would send them crazy as he slide in the winner, just inside the far post, with about ten minutes remaining.
And so Hussein Dey overtook JSK in the league table.

I negotiated the exit (after a slight delay to let the away fans disperse) and enjoyed a stroll in the nearby botanical gardens.
There the local families were enjoying a very tranquil ambience, somewhat different to that taking place a short distance away.

(or Zemmamouche do the fandango)

31st October  USM Alger 1 TP Mazembe 2  CAF Champions League final 1st leg
Stade Omar Hammadi, Bologhine, Algiers  c. 12,000 (c. 300 away)

In terms of atmosphere this was up there with the best of South America, Turkey and Greece.

The directors of USMA had decided to stage this important match at the ‘municipal’ stadium because it provides a visceral, very intimidating atmosphere.

We certainly got that.

I set off by metro then walked through the centre of Algiers and out by the sea to near the ground. Along the way you see red and black banners stretched across the streets.

I stopped near to the ground assuming I was a little early.

But after a while I realised the fans gathered had been moved away from the entrances - because the stadium was virtually full, probably by 4.30pm.

That was four hours before kickoff.

Fortunately I managed to negotiate my way through and was inside well over 3 hours prior to the start.

Perhaps only CAF would allow such a final to be played in this kind of ground.
But what it lacks in facilities it more than makes up for in atmosphere.

The build up was impressive with noise and chants.
At one point, as the nearby mosque signalled the call to prayer, the fans solemnly intoned ‘Allah Akbar’.

The players came out, from both camps, to look around and small groups of TP fans began to arrive - to be greeted by missiles.
They were likely to be students or local workers.
Few would have made the journey from DRC.

One particular point of interest to many was the presence of some female TP fans in the VIP area.
I never saw one local female fan at any of the matches - not in the culture apparently.
And judging by the regular skirmishes and intensity it’s not surprising.

Eventually the time came for the players to enter.

And we had an explosion of flares, noise and choreo.
If all that was intimidating for the TP players it didn’t show.

They even produced a nice touch before the start by forming around the centre circle and greeting each part of the ground.

Maybe some had seen it all before - Mazembe have appeared in six finals and won the title four times.
For USMA, fielding an all-Algerian team,  it was their first final.

The side from DRC comprised a mix of nationalities and it soon became evident they were a very competent outfit.

With such a buildup it was inevitably a hectic beginning with TP pressing hard from the front.

We saw chances at both ends with the home side threatening from the right wing speed of Ferhat and the fine left foot crosses of Benmoussa.
But it was the visitors who set about silencing the noise when  Zambian Rainford Kalaba delivered a great right foot shot over goalie Zemmamouche on 27 minutes.

TP might have added to that score but Zemmamouche made some good interventions.
And the home cause was enhanced when Kalaba struck out at a USMA defender just before half time and he made the long walk of shame.

The second period began and we had a lull before the Egyptian referee awarded two penalties for TP.
Firstly El Orfi received a second yellow for holding in the area.

Mikis Mina then stepped up after the protests but his shot was well saved by Zemmamouche.

The Algerians celebrated by berating the referee.
But a second spot kick came on 79 after pacy striker Mbwana Samatta was brought down.

The Tanzanian got up to send the goalie the wrong way and settle the outcome.

By now the noise had long since dissipated as the crowd drifted away.
Many missed the consolation goal by sub. Seguer late in the match.

On this basis TP Mazembe look well set to collect their fifth Champions League title.
It would need an heroic performance by the Algerians in Lubumbashi to turnaround the tie.

I left on the whistle and made the walk back towards the centre with the rest of the disconsolate USM boys.
Some produced flares they had been saving for the expected celebrations.

Eventually I found a taxi and was back at the Sofitel by 11.30pm

Entente cordiale.

1st November  Entente Setif 1 MO Bejaia 0  Algerian Super Cup  Constantine  c. 11,000
(mostly Setif fans)

The next day I had an early 5am start to get the one hour flight to Constantine for this Super Cup match between the cup winners (Bejaia) and the league champions (Setif).

Beforehand I had met a contact at a hotel in the slightly surreal Neuvelle Ville area with its mix of unfinished apartment blocks and poorer parts.
Afterwards I told the taxi driver the immortal words ‘take me to the casbah’ or words to that effect.

Actually I was dropped in the centre and from there I strolled around taking some pictures of the views.
Though I had a brief look the casbah is somewhat claustrophobic for my taste.

After a lunch in one of the cafes I made the walk, some 40 minutes, towards the Stade Mohamed Hamlaoui.
This time there was no need to arrive particularly early as the stadium can hold around 40,000.

It is a large bowl with a track and curving ends that overall lacks the intimate atmosphere at yesterday’s match.
But nevertheless this is Algeria and Entente are well supported and their fans were packed in areas to my left.

On what became a chilly afternoon we saw a game that took a long time to spark into life.
The first half featured few significant incidents with just a couple of headers at either end.

But on 50 minutes it seemed the deadlock would be broken after Hamzaoui was held back and MOB were awarded a penalty.
Their captain Zerdab took the kick but he blasted it over the bar and that was their chance gone.

Afterwards ES started to take control particularly following the substitutions made by the coach.
One of the replacements, Belameri, a tiny wide man, would produce the decisive moment with about six minutes remaining.
That was when he cut in from the right to shoot left footed past the Bejaia goalie.

The ES victory was probably deserved as they had shown more attacking intent.
And so the large contingent from Setif could celebrate their first Super Cup title.

I departed and watched the fireworks from outside the stadium.
As had been the case at the other big matches the police closed off most of the surrounding roads meaning it takes some time to get a taxi (they also seem to disappear - watching the game on TV i guess)

And not only that it meant a long diversion to get to the airport
Fortunately my flight back to the capital was not until 9.25pm.

The next day I relaxed, took the metro to the Algiers centre, and settled for a kebab in the evening.

As for Algiers and Algeria.

It was safe and friendly.

Yes the traffic could be very bad and the organisation sometimes problematic.
But the people were welcoming and the weather mostly a very pleasant 22-17 degrees.

And my schoolboy French enabled a basic level of communication.
Outside of the prohibitively expensive hotel you could eat comfortably for around £3 per day.

In Algiers the metro, albeit limited in size, allowed quick access to the centre.
Wandering around near the casbah was not an issue.

In a way what you didn’t see was as interesting as what you do see.
No tourists for instance - and as a result there were no hustlers and also few beggars.

The two cities I visited felt like France some years ago with few coffee outlets, modern shopping centres or restaurants.

Obviously the football was different.
With its large population of young people the big games are seriously passionate and would be intimidating if you are not familiar with such situations.

But if want that visceral experience Algeria delivers though it is definitely not for the faint hearted.

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