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BAGHDAD BOUNEDJAH: THE DESERT FOX MAKING A NAME FOR HIMSELF IN QATAR

Baghdad Bounedjah has come a long way to be successful having done well in North Africa, left his home, moved to Qatar and bring his best form in the Qatari Stars League.

Having reached the final of the competition, Algeria seem to be in a strong position to win the African Cup of Nations in Egypt. It’s nothing new for the Fennecs: since the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and the formidable display put on show where they were competitive in their four games, many followers of the African game have expected them to rise and add a bit of silverware to support their confident showings. 

The start was a bit slow. Instead of challenging, Algeria let many expectations down in the last two continental competitions. First in 2015, when the team was led by Christian Gourcuff, they were knocked out in the quarter-finals by eventual champions Ivory Coast, who were then led by Hervé Renard. Two years later, another misstep saw them get dumped out of the African Cup of Nations in the group stages. After five different managers, failure to qualify for the World Cup only added to their woes. 

How did they recover from this to make the final of the current edition? First, the squad worked vastly to improve. Over the years, the nation has seen the rise of many great talents, led by Riyad Mahrez. Supporting him are the likes of Sofiane Feghouli, Yacine Brahimi, Andy Delort and Faouzi Ghoulam (who, unfortunately, didn’t travel to Egypt for the tournament). In terms of management, they’ve looked look and Djamel Belmadi, a man who has enjoyed success at club level with Al-Duhail in Qatar – was the perfect choice.

One of the most improved, however, has been a brand new face to the side. With Hillal Soudani and Ishak Belfodil out of the side and Islam Slimani struggling for form, one of the most interesting players in the side has been Baghdad Bounedjah, who has been one of the most prolific goalscorers in the world.

Bounedjah’s journey to reach this point has certainly been impressive. Born in the Algerian city of Oran in 1991, his initial steps in the sport came with his local team, Raed Chabab Gharb d’Oran, who were playing in the sixth tier of Algerian football when he started off. Bouedjah, however, was just 18-years-old at the, and the experience was a good stepping stone for him. He was later spotted by Boualem Charef, the legendary USM El Harrach icon, who was also its manager. 

Charef led the side for nearly a decade across various stints and he noticed something unique in Bounedjah. It was the right choice to bring him into the squad and early in, the club recognised that. USM El Harrach came close to winning the league in the 2012-13 seasons, and in his first two years, Bounedjah scored 16 times, prompting the national side, who were led by Vahid Halilhodžić, to consider calling him up. It was a surprising rumour, but Bounedjah remained with the U23 squad as the country learned of his talents. 

To raise his profile, Bounedjah soon left his home country and signed for Tunisian outfit, Étoile Sportive du Sahel, one of the most well-known clubs in North Africa. It was another solid move because the Tunisian league and its teams were seemingly more competitive than the ones in Algeria, and this allowed Bounedjah to mature further. He bagged a mammoth 46 goals in a little over two seasons and etched his name in the fans’ hearts as well as the club’s history books. 

In the final of the 2013-14 Tunisian Cup, the striker scored a decisive hat-trick to win the game against Stade Gabèsien. With his side going behind twice in this crucial match, the Algerian took all the weight on his shoulders and put in an inspiring display. First, he levelled the game with two strong headers, and then went on to net the winner with a classy touch. It could be said that his skills were still raw at the time and that he needed further polishing, but Bounedjah was always hungry, always looking to learn and improve. 

In Tunisia, things were going so well that there was a proposal to convince Bounedjah to play for his adopted country, but that was quickly refuted by the player himself, suggesting that his only desire was to play for Algeria. 

There was an even a bizarre situation in one match against US Monastir, where Bounedjah played in goal after his goalkeeper was sent off in the final moments of the match. The bizarre part about this scenario was that Tunisian league rules prevent foreigners from playing in goal, but such was the hype and expectation that Bounedjah would indeed switch allegiances, that he was given the green light to don the gloves. 

Moreover, to add to his importance, in a crucial group stage game of the 2015 CAF Confederations Cup, Bounderjah scored a brace in three minutes to bring Étoile back in contention for the final phase. That 2-1 home win against arch-rivals Espérance de Tunis would be a massive push towards the club’s win in the tournament. \

These performances wouldn’t go unnoticed elsewhere, and many were pleased at the prospect of having a striker of his stature amongst their squad, and that interest was not just limited to North Africa. Many in the region put him in their fantasy all-star teams, making him one of the most reputed African players alongside the likes of Yaya Touré, Serge Aurier, Sadio Mané, Yacine Brahimi and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, to name a few.

Qatari outfit Al-Sadd opted to purchase the promising forward but allowed him to stay on loan in Tunisia for the first six months as they had already filled up their foreign quota. When he was back, he initially struggled with an ankle injury and endured a difficult first season. Nonetheless, in the little time he was on the pitch, he made an impact, scoring seven times in 10 matches and letting Qatar know who he is.

Al-Sadd have been a powerhouse in Middle Eastern football and often too well in Asia as well. In Qatar, they’ve won the Qatari Stars League a record 14 times. They’re also the last Middle Eastern team to have won the AFC Champions League in 2011 and they host some of the best talents Qatari football has ever had including the likes of Hassan Al-Haydos and Khalfan Ibrahim.

In this scenario, even if you’re in a league as universally unpopular as the QSL, expectations can be let down in many ways. Bounedjah, however, hasn’t yet endured that phase. He has done what he is best known for consistently: score goals at a good rate. Once he recovered from injury, he was one of the stars of the Al-Sadd project and scored 30 times across all competitions – an excellent return. 

The club fell short in the title race in 2017 and 2018, but the Algerian’s form in front of goal was never let down. Fifty-eight goals in 47 matches across two years and improved form in the Champions League, scoring 13 in the 2018 edition with Al-Sadd nearly going all the way was a wonderful record, and his stock kept on rising.

It was in the 2018-19 season where Bounedjah was arguably at his best. He scored an unbelievable 39 times in 22 matches in the QSL, taking Al-Sadd back to winning ways and one of those games saw him score seven times against Al-Arabi. He showcased all of his skills over the course of the year, and even scooped the Algerian Player of the Year gong, finishing ahead of the talented Riyad Mahrez and Yacine Brahimi.

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BAGHDAD BOUNEDJAH HAS BEEN IN INSPIRED FORM IN QATAR

He used his best attributes to reach these great heights: smart positioning and great awareness, a solid shot and capabilities with both feet, fine movement and realising situations, he had it all. Chatter including his name continued to grow – he was a solid forward to have in any side, but the prospect of leaving Qatar was never too attractive.

European teams were looking to add him to their ranks, but Bounedjah was never too appealed by that, instead, he would renew his contract twice, first until 2021 and then until 2024. Concrete interest from sides such as Marseille, Leicester City, and Leeds United came by, but Bounedjah wasn’t distracted. He would just keep scoring, and eventually, he would hit a century of goals for the club. 

One thing that was missing from his career, though, was success with his beloved Algeria. He was surprisingly called up in 2011, and then also featured across various age groups in various tournaments, but he hasn’t yet appealed to the many national bosses the country has had.

This was mainly due to the fact that the two strikers above him in the pecking order were hardly dropped during his best years. Islam Slimani and Hillal Soudani occupied the strikers’ role, while Ishak Belfodil has been third on the list. However, seeing as the aforementioned names have had troubles aplenty in recent years, Bounedjah has only just started to get a consistent run in the team. 

His form in Qatar warranted a starting spot, and since 2017, he’s featured more frequently, maintaining a decent record.

Rabah Madjer was the first Algeria coach to constantly give Bounedjah a chance and Belmadi followed suit, deploying him as the first choice. The Al-Sadd forward has repaid the faith put in him, scoring eight times in 10 matches before the African Cup of Nations, and was even trusted with the captain’s armband against his adopted nation, Qatar, where he famously scored the winner. 

The African Cup of Nations hasn’t yet gone to plan, with Bounedjah scoring in the opening game, but being kept quiet since. Algeria are now in the final, but there have been a few criticisms against the forward. He now has the greatest of chances against Senegal in the final to create history for his nation and banish all the doubters once and for all. 

The future looks bright no matter what for Bounedjah. His current coach at club level, the great Xavi, has been pushing for him to make a move to Europe and showcase his skills, while he himself has big goals of doing well in the build-up to the 2022 World Cup, which is to be held in Qatar – a nation which he has come to learn about very well. The next few days could have a huge say in his career, but even if he doesn’t do well in Cairo, hope over what he can achieve over the course of his career must not be lost.

BY GABRIELE ANELLO