New African champions Algeria started their reign with a sprint, while a disappointed Senegal slumped to the turf of the Cairo International Stadium.
In that moment on Friday night, the Lions of Teranga wouldn’t have minded if the stadium opened up and swallowed them. But it didn’t, and it was up to their coach Aliou Cisse to pick them up. The former Senegal captain rallied his troops with an emotional speech as he knew exactly what they were going through.
Seventeen years ago, he was in a similar situation when Senegal lost to Cameroon in the final of the 2002 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon). Senegal came together, held a prayer, and watched as Algeria basked in the glory of being African champions for the second time.
The Desert Foxes welcomed referee Alioum Alioum’s final whistle with a sprint towards the thousands of Algerian fans who occupied the stand behind Senegal goalkeeper Alfred Gomis.
Some players, like Rais M’Bolhi, ran the length of a pitch to celebrate with the fans who had travelled over 3000km from Algiers to Cairo. The Algerian government had flown thousands of fans to Egypt’s capital to witness history.
“I am happy for all these people, for our whole country and our people who were waiting for that second star for a long time,” Algeria coach Djamel Belmadi said. “It’s the first Afcon we've won outside our country. It’s just unbelievable, especially when we look at where we have come from.
“Ten months ago, I found a team with a lot of trouble. Without being dramatic, it was really difficult. To do everything we could have done and reach the top of Africa in 10 months, it’s just unbelievable.”
Ten months ago, Algeria were in a mess. They were changing coaches faster than they changed socks. The team was in a state and needed drastic intervention after crashing out in the group stage of the 2017 Afcon and failing to make it to Russia for the 2018 World Cup.
Belmadi, a former captain, was brought in to change the desperate situation but winning the Afcon title wasn’t even in the minds of Algerians when he started, or even when the team arrived in Egypt. But Belmadi believed that they could be African champions. He didn’t shy away from stating that his team was here to win the Afcon, something they had only done before in 1990 - on home soil.
Those who thought he had lost his mind are eating humble pie right now as he feasts on African dominance.
Algeria’s win came from the passion the players had for playing for the national team. They gave it their all, and they were the best team in Egypt from the start.
The other motivation was to give hope to a country currently in a political impasse. On February 22, Algerians started protesting against former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who wanted to run for a fifth term despite being gravely ill.
Algerians have marched every Friday since then with the intention of changing their country.
They got their way as Bouteflika didn’t run for a fifth term and stepped down. But they didn’t stop there - they want more reforms and a change of the current crop of leaders who were there when Bouteflika was in power.
The Algerians’ tenacity was exhibited by their players, who didn’t compromise nor shirk from a challenge even at the sight of any small victory. They were relentless. This tenacity is what gave Algeria their second Afcon title.