The last time Algeria reached the Africa Cup of Nations final, Riyad Mahrez wasn’t yet born.
The Manchester City star’s stunning stoppage time free-kick against Nigeria in Sunday’s semifinal booked the Fennec Foxes a spot in the final for the first time in 29 years.
Algeria also beat Nigeria on that day in 1990, winning 1-0 in front of 105,000 fans on home soil in a match that has gone down in Algerian footballing folklore.
It remains the nation’s only AFCON triumph to date and for a country with the pedigree and talent that Algeria boasts, the turbulent intervening years have made for a painful wait to once again reach the pinnacle of African football.
“We are so happy to be in the final because it is something unbelievable,” Mahrez said after his dramatic match-winning display. “It is a great feeling.
“We have been very good in this tournament. We have scored 12 goals and conceded only two but definitely this game (vs. Nigeria) has given us more confidence to play the final. We are capable of winning it.
When Algeria take on Senegal in Friday’s final, it will be the second time they have faced off in the competition.
The Fennec Foxes got the better of their opponents in a tight group stage match, edging past Senegal with a narrow 1-0 win.
“We played Senegal in the group stages and we know they are a very good team,” Mahrez said. “It will be a tough final.
“Always, even if it is another team, finals are always tough. But for Senegal, we know their strengths and weaknesses and we will go to give them a good game.”
The semifinal win sparked jubilant celebrations from Algerian communities around the world. In France, fans took to the Champs-Elysees in Paris and the streets of Lyon and Marseille and partied late into the night.
Meanwhile, fans shut down roads in north and south London as celebrations even overshadowed those of England’s Cricket World Cup win just a couple of hours earlier.
‘This is a game for history’
Friday will be the fifth AFCON meeting between these two sides and Senegal will be hoping to do something they have not previous been able to achieve: Win.
Only once have the Lions of Teranga not tasted defeat against Algeria in the continent’s most prestigious competition, a 2-2 draw back in 2017.
But coach Aliou Cisse believes this generation of players — that includes Liverpool star forward Sadio Mane and Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly — is better than the one he captained to the country’s first AFCON final 17 years ago.
“I feel very proud,” he said after the 1-0 extra time win against Tunisia in the semifinal. “We haven’t reached the final since 17 years. This is the fruit of a long-time preparation. Those players worked hard for five full years and now we get the fruit of this hard work.
“Football is always charming. This is a game for history. Pressure is a part of the game, it is a part of my work. I played football since I was 12, and had always felt the pressure since then.
“I am not thinking of the final now, I’m just happy that I made Senegal’s people happy.”
That final ended in a painful penalty shootout defeat to Cameroon but Cisse is confident his players, with who he has developed a close bond since taking up the job in 2015, can go one better.
However, they will have to do so without the leadership of Koulibaly, who misses out on his country’s biggest game through suspension.
“I have unlimited trust in my players and I felt they want to achieve something, Cisse said. “They did all what is needed to win. This generation is better than the 2002 one. My players told me they will be better than us, and they did.
“My relationship with them is like father-sons. When I became their coach in 2015 I told them our target is to reach the FIFA World Cup and the Africa Cup of Nations final. That was the way to convince Kalidou Koulibaly to play for Senegal instead of France. Now here we are”.