Algeria's AFCON title win wasn't pretty but will remain memorable
CAIRO -- Algeria's players ran toward the swaying mass of green and white behind the goal, some swinging from the crossbars while others could barely contain themselves from running into the stands and allowing themselves to be submerged in 15,000 of their jubilant, incredulous countrymen.
This meant everything: It meant a first Africa Cup of Nations title for almost three decades, and it meant a fresh surge of optimism for a country that has been in the throes of revolution this year.
The tears flowed and, for those neutrals inside Cairo International Stadium, the intensity of the celebrations would have moved a heart of stone. It was a steely core that eventually saw Algeria get past Senegal 1-0 on Friday night.
Only the most die-hard Algeria follower would be likely to sit through this final again. They will replay Baghdad Bounedjah's winning goal, scored in the second minute via a deflection off Salif Sane that left the ball hanging for an age in the night air, until it is seared into their retinas.
But they might wish to skip the subsequent 92 minutes, in which Djamel Belmadi's side set about scrapping their way through to the victory and shed virtually any pretence of engaging in a football match. They will not care much, but this was a frustrating, often almost unwatchable final in which Algeria, buoyed so early by such a fortunate strike, seized their lead gratefully and then refused to let go.
They did not manage another shot on goal after that; they restricted Senegal to few of their own, though, and in the end, the manner of this win will come second in the annals of history to the sheer scale of what they have achieved.
"If you told me the match would have unfolded as it did, I would have bitten your hand off," Belmadi admitted. "We had a special strategy. We were organised, solid and we didn't press high."
They certainly did not. And there were a few moments, when Senegal broke free of the near-endless scuffle and niggle imposed on them by their opponents, when their high-wire act looked on the brink of falling on its face. They had flirted with danger toward the end of the first half and then, 15 minutes into the second, referee Neaant Alioum appeared to have dealt them the ultimate punishment.
He awarded a penalty when the lively Ismaila Sarr crossed the ball against Adlene Guedioura's hand in close proximity. Most football fans have seen those given in recent times but, after a VAR review, Alioum decided to restart the game with a drop ball.
"I think over the course of the match, we deserved to equalise," said Senegal coach Aliou Cisse, although he warmly congratulated his childhood friend Belmadi.
Sarr and M'Baye Niang missed chances, but ultimately Senegal were taught a lesson in game management and must wait to collect their first AFCON. Cisse held an intense team talk on the pitch while Algeria cavorted: The message was presumably "chin up" and it is unthinkable that a country with their remarkable hit rate for developing players will not come again.
Perhaps they might have hoped for a flourish from Sadio Mane, but he was kept quiet, whether by fair means or foul. Riyad Mahrez, the other genuine global star on the pitch, was even less visible, and it told plenty about the depths the game sunk to as Algeria sought to contest it purely on their own terms.
"Communicating that I wanted to win the AFCON early in my stint was me sending a signal to my players, to get them in the right mindset," said Belmadi, who took the national team job only last August.
Perhaps that is why the laborious nature of this final should not be dwelt upon for too long. Over the course of the tournament, Algeria have looked like exactly what Belmadi wanted them to be: a team of winners that can skin a cat in several different ways. They outscored Senegal by 13 goals to eight during the month and it would be wrong to posit Friday night's game, in its true context, as an unjust defeat for idealists against dyed-in-the-wool cynics. Belmadi simply devised a way for them to leap this hurdle and, ultimately, nobody will begrudge Algeria their joy.
"I'm so happy for my people," Belmadi said. "They've waited so long for this. A first AFCON won outside our country. It's incredible, especially when you consider where we were 10 months ago."
Then he went off to let the emotions sink in.
"I'm sure we'll realise what we've done in the coming days," he said.
The reminders will not be hard to come by; not tonight, and not for the rest of his life.