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Hopes of Madjid Bougherra's Algeria are in the hands of a Foreign Legion

WHEN Algeria qualified for the World Cup finals last time round, Madjid Bougherra went AWOL from Rangers to go partying with his country's president and incurred the wrath of his then club manager Walter Smith, being left out of the side for a Champions League match against VfB Stuttgart when he finally did decide to wind his weary way back to Glasgow.

Madjid Bougherra's World Cup first campaign ended at the group stage four years ago following defeats by Slovenia and Clint Dempsey's United States. Picture: Getty
Madjid Bougherra's World Cup first campaign ended at the group stage four years ago following defeats by Slovenia and Clint Dempsey's United States. Picture: Getty

It was the third time in six months that he had been posted missing from Ibrox in the wake of international duty. Despite talk back then of various impediments to returning to work on time - such as a mislaid passport and a poorly daughter - it seems fair to say the charismatic central defender has always made the most of turning out for his adopted nation.

His defining moment, though, now lies just one tantalising week away. Bougherra, whose bundled effort in Algiers last November took Les Fennecs to Brazil by virtue of an away goals win over Burkina Faso in the play-offs, will captain Vahid Halihodzic's side when they begin their Group H campaign against Belgium and senses history is within his reach.

Algeria failed to score in their three matches in the 2010 World Cup. Wandering alone into the dusty heart of the Sahara to be picked clean by vultures when the elements had taken their toll almost seemed preferable to sitting through one of their games by the time the group stage had reached its end.

Since then, a number of younger players raised in France have been drafted in and Algeria would appear to be a rather more attractive proposition. Indeed, 16 of the 23 players in Halihodzic's squad were born in France with Sofiane Feghouli, coming off a fine season with Spanish club Valencia, perhaps their strongest player in midfield and a man with three under-21 caps for Les Bleus to his name.

Bougherra is French by birth. He was brought up near Dijon and qualifies for the North African nation through a grandparent.

However, he sported the colours of Algeria on a wristband throughout his Rangers career and was proud to dress up in green-and-white on special occasions. His shenanigans with the political elite four years ago were just the tip of the iceberg.

The 31-year-old is the undisputed leader of Algeria's own, growing Foreign Legion and insists the make-up of the squad should be regarded as a help rather than a hindrance. These are players with plenty to prove, but with knowledge gleaned from several high-profile clubs around Europe.

"I was born in France and trained in France, but my heart is 200 per cent Algerian," said Bougherra. "I think all bi-national players dream of playing for Algeria. It is a strength for us because we have players performing all over the world now, who have been trained all over the world. It can only be a good thing for the national team.

"This will be my second World Cup and my last. It is an honour to have two World Cups behind me and to be the captain. For me, this is the top of my career and I just hope we will do something good.

"Of course, our objective is simple: to try to get through the first round. There is a good team here for the future and we cannot be timid. It is clear that there are going to be many obstacles and we have some big teams in front of us at the World Cup, but we have nothing to lose.

"I believe the team has great potential and the capability to surprise. We want to write a new page in the history of Algerian football."

Algeria started well in South Africa four years ago, standing firm to eke out a goalless draw with England in their opening fixture. One-goal defeats by Slovenia and the United States followed, however, as the team sloped out of the competition.

Algeria certainly seem capable of producing more over the next couple of weeks with a number of individuals from leading European clubs within their ranks. That list includes Napoli defender Faouzi Ghoulam, Internazionale midfielder Saphir Taider, Tottenham Hotspur's rising talent Nabil Bentaleb and Sporting Lisbon forward Islam Slimani.

"We have to leave this tournament without any regrets," said Bougherra. "We have to play our game, take pleasure from it and stand together because without solidarity, there will be nothing. It is one thing that we insist upon every day and the coach is the same.

"This is the strength of Algeria. Solidarity and playing with the heart are the qualities that can allow us to get through the first round.

"We prepared in Switzerland in very good conditions and I have noticed a real determination within the squad to achieve something good in Brazil.

"I am sure we will all approach the competition with a real warrior spirit.

"At the last World Cup, my best memory was the match against England. We had a lot of good feedback after that game. The most important thing for me was to represent Algeria, present a good image, lead by example and play fairly.

"We must not forget that we are representing the Arab world. We have a certain responsibility."

Belgium are widely expected to win Group H, but Algeria believe they have it within themselves to make life difficult for both Russia and South Korea.

"Everyone is unanimous," said Bougherra. "Belgium are favourites. We will play three teams with three different styles of play and it is going to be hard, but I have confidence."

Bougherra, of course, will be using the World Cup as a platform to find himself a new club, having ended his three-year stay with Qatari club Lekhwiya at the end of the season.

He has stated already that he would like to return to Rangers to end his professional career, although there appears to be keener interest from the Turkish club Besiktas and Major League Soccer side Philadelphia Union.

Bougherra remains closely connected to Ibrox, though, and is positive that Rangers will return to their former glories in time. Whether he plays a part in taking them there remains to be seen.

"The club has always attracted big support and they get crowds of around 50,000 for every match," he said. "I'm absolutely convinced the team will make it back to the top."

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