PARIS (AP) - With four matches to go in Algeria’s top flight, last-place NA Hussein Dey can still dream of a great end to the season, while league leader ES Setif could yet tumble way down the table.
Imagine Real Madrid being in this position the season after winning the Champions League and the Club World Cup.
But African Champion Setif, which is also the CAF Super Cup holder, is only 11 points clear of last-place Hussein Dey in Algeria’s 16-team Division Nationale Une.
It’s a far cry from Europe.
Bayern Munich has sealed the Bundesliga; Juventus and Chelsea have almost clinched titles in Italy and England, respectively. Spain is a two-horse race between Barcelona and Madrid, while Paris Saint-Germain is battling Lyon in France.
“Since the very start of the league there have been very tight games and not one team has stood out,” Asma Halimi, editor of the football newspaper Competition, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “It’s incredible. But it’s good because it’s one of the rare times that all the teams are giving their all in every game.”
When the title race resumes on May 23, Setif plays 10th-place RC Arbaa. A win will move Arbaa to within three points of Setif and firmly in the title race. Third-place MC Oran is two points behind Setif and Oran could become champions despite averaging a paltry .65 goals per game.
Imagine how that would be received in the goal-hungry Premier League.
Even the “boring, boring Arsenal” teams under George Graham - mocked by opposition fans because of the team’s reputation for carving out 1-0 wins - was spectacular by comparison in scoring 51 goals in 38 games when it won the title in the 1990-91 season.
There seems little consistency.
Setif has conceded more goals - 25 - than any of the bottom three teams - who have all scored more goals than Oran.
Fourth-place USM El Harrach - one of three teams within two points of Setif - has the most wins of the season with 12, yet has lost more games than any of the bottom five.
“Since I started in this profession 17 years ago, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Halimi said. “When you look at the matches, you notice that the bottom team can beat the top team without any problem.”
Behind the suspense, however, there is a sadder story: half-filled stadiums and fan violence have led to an apathetic climate on the field, where home-grown players are increasingly resigned to never playing for the national team.
Former midfielder Lakhdar Belloumi, who scored Algeria’s winning goal in a shock 2-1 win over West Germany at the 1982 World Cup, is increasingly worried.
“It’s sad to see the state of our football when I remember what it was before. There was entertainment in the stands, a knowledgeable public who came to spend a pleasant afternoon,” said Belloumi, Algeria’s record-holder with 101 appearances. “Today our stadiums are practically empty. The phenomenon of violence is largely responsible, without forgetting the phenomenon of money, meaning that players have become mercenaries (who) no longer play for the (club) colors.
“The national team is made up of expatriates, whereas the spine of our team was made of players from local clubs,” adds Belloumi, who played in two World Cups alongside Rabah Madjer - a wonderfully gifted forward who started his career with Hussein Dey.
Only one of Algeria’s 2015 African Cup of Nations squad was home-based: reserve goalkeeper Azzedine Doukha, who plays for JS Kabylie - which is eighth but only trails Setif by six points.
The prospects of an international call up for those who do well are remote, doing little to improve the league’s consistency.
Journeyman striker Abdelmalek Ziaya is Setif’s top scorer but the 31-year-old has played only six times for Algeria in his career and never scored. Kabylie’s top scorer is 35-year-old defender Ali Rial with nine goals this season, but Rial never played for his country despite nearly 200 club appearances.
“I think the verdict is totally negative,” Samir Lamari, the sports editor for Liberte newspaper said. “The few players capable of bringing a bit of quality prefer to exile themselves in Tunisia or in the Gulf countries.”
Midfielder Youcef Belaili tried his luck abroad - playing the past two seasons for Esperance Tunis - and the highly-rated 23-year-old midfielder has struggled for consistency since returning to play for fifth-place USM Alger.
“Every season a player has stood out, but this season not a single player has. Even Belaili is inconsistent,” Halimi said. “We don’t have great players. You can see the proof in the Algeria team. Even with the problems in central defense following the retirement of (Madjid) Bougherra and the average form of (Carl) Medjani, (national team coach Christian) Gourcuff looked around for a central defender this season and couldn’t find one.”
What continues to stand out is the violence: - 28 matches so far have been played behind closed doors, Halimi said.
The violence reached an ugly height in August when Cameroonian striker Albert Ebosse was killed by rocks thrown from the stands when playing for JS Kabylie. Algerian youths have been storming pitches, stoning players and clashing outside stadiums in a wave of hooliganism seen as an outlet for the frustrations of day-to-day life in Algeria.
“The big Algiers derby (a fervent rivalry between USM and MA Alger) was played without fans home and away (this season),” Halimi said. “Every week there is footage of violence: people throwing stones, projectiles.”
Associated Press writer Aomar Ouali in Algiers, Algiera contributed to this report.
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