This year the Premier League posted a video compilation of the fastest goals from kick-off. They were all scored within seconds of the game starting, ignoring the mid-match instant post-kick-off goal, but they give a taste of the genre as a whole, populated as it almost entirely is by defensive blunders and hopeful hoofs, goals that almost all rely on a convenient ricochet or two at some point in the buildup.
In 1982, against West Germany, Algeria scored a goal similar in its speed following a restart, but here there are no hoofs or ricochets, just 23 seconds of teamwork and precision. They produced this in the most exacting circumstances: immediately after conceding an equaliser against massively favoured European giants, in their country’s first World Cup finals fixture. “We were,” the goalscorer, Lakhdar Belloumi, later said, “the Brazilians of Africa.” And for at least half a minute in Gijón, the world saw it.
The team had made their name two years previously, when having qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time since the 1960s they made it to the final before losing against the hosts, Nigeria. After that match Helenio Herrera, then the Barcelona coach, sought out Belloumi, their young star, to discuss a potential transfer, which was stymied by the fact that until 1984 Algerian players were legally obliged to remain in their domestic league until the age of 27.
The dawn of the 80s ushered in a decade-and-a-bit of Algerian success. In 20 attempts outside this period they have only once reached the Cup of Nations, but in 11 years starting in 1980 they finished fourth once, third twice, second once and eventually, in 1990, became champions. Also in 1980 they reached the quarter-finals of the Olympic Games in Moscow. None of this had made much of an impression in Europe, with the Guardian briskly dismissing them in our guide to the 1982 World Cup. “Algeria are novices in international football,” we wrote. “They rely on mercenaries from the French league and they will not bother the favourites.” Of West Germany we asserted with certainty that “the Germans will progress into the second stage without any difficulty”.
The German team were if anything more confident still, though they had limited knowledge of their opponents. “My players would laugh their heads off if I showed them film of the Algerian team,” said their coach, Jupp Derwall. “If we don’t beat them, I’ll be on the next train home.” One of the German players predicted a rout: “We will dedicate our seventh goal to our wives,” he said, “and the eighth to our dogs.”
Toni Schumacher, their goalkeeper, said: “We really didn’t take Algeria seriously. Back then we were really a footballing power, and then along comes this team we’d never heard of. Algeria hadn’t even qualified for a World Cup before. We certainly didn’t lose any sleep worrying.”
They may not have been worrying, but they did lose sleep. According to legend, on the night before the match the Germans chose not to stay in their four-star hotel in Gijón, where they had rented out three floors to guarantee peace and security, but in the considerably less salubrious accommodation at their training ground, Sporting Gijón’s academy. They found the soundproofing there was as rudimentary as the plumbing, meaning that if anyone flushed a toilet the entire building knew about it, and to make matters worse the security guard’s dog was in the habit of barking all night.
They certainly appeared to be a bit sleepy as the team that started the tournament as second-favourites were not only bothered by Algeria, but beaten by them. “We beat them our way,” Belloumi said. “It was a historic match. In the papers we’d been belittled before the game, but on the pitch we were fighters.”
Algeria took the lead nine minutes after half-time when after a lovely, incisive move Belloumi’s shot deflected off Schumacher to leave Rabah Madjer – also famous for scoring in Porto’s 1987 European Cup final win against Bayern Munich, and who has had three spells as Algeria’s manager – with a straightforward chance that he took expertly. Karl-Heinz Rumenigge equalised in the 67th minute, turning in a low cross from Felix Magath from close range. Nine passes and 23 seconds after the restart Algeria were back in the lead, and this time there was no way back for the Germans.
“We felt invincible and we didn’t fear anybody,” Belloumi said. “1982 is the most beautiful memory in the history of Algerian football. We made our mark on the soul and on the entire world of football. What we achieved, by bringing such joy to the Algerian people, will remain for ever in my memory.”
Having lost against Austria but beaten Chile in their two remaining group games, Algeria’s players gathered in their hotel to watch the final fixture, between Austria and West Germany, and see whether they would qualify for the second round. Instead they saw two teams colluding to ensure their elimination in a display of still-legendary skulduggery. Algeria were out, but had made their mark. “When I first starting training, I had just seen Belloumi play,” Eric Cantona, 16 that summer, recalled. “It was a great generation which inspired many people, myself included.”
Belloumi remains one of the greatest African footballers, a player of sublime skill and ingenuity – he claims to have invented the blind pass in the 1970s – who having never played in another World Cup or club football in Europe is rarely mentioned by those compiling all-time-best listicles. Instead there was late-career infamy after a fight in a hotel between Egypt and Algeria players in 1989 ended with the Egyptian doctor being hit in the face with a glass bottle and blinded in one eye. Belloumi was blamed, and an international arrest warrant against him was only dropped 20 years later (he says he was upstairs with the team’s then manager, Abdelhamid Kermali, when the fight happened).
By then he had been denied again the move to Europe that might have redefined him. In March 1985 he played so well in a friendly between Algeria and Juventus that the Italian side decided to sign him. The Libyan team al-Ittihad put paid to that in May when in the first round of the African Champions League – and with Belloumi’s side, Mascara, 4-0 ahead after the first leg in Algeria – they repeatedly fouled him, eventually breaking his leg. Belloumi believes it was targeted. “They knew they were out so they took revenge on me because I was the star of the team,” he said. “It was just pure, deliberate aggression.”
The player insists he looks back with no regrets. “I was happy in my own country. I had no reason to leave. You must understand, there was nothing that I couldn’t get in Algeria. I didn’t have to leave. I was extremely popular and seeing so many people come to the stadium to watch me was a source of satisfaction and joy.” As, for millions in Algeria and around the world, was the brilliance with which this team of minnows once destroyed the lazy superiority of one of the giants of the international game.