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Algeria braces for historic football comeback

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — After a 24-year absence from soccer's biggest tournament, Algeria's last-minute qualification for the World Cup sent shock waves of glee through a country still reeling from a decade of civil war, persistent al-Qaida-linked terrorism, and massive unemployment and graft.

Fans in the soccer-mad country on the northern coast of Africa are so excited that even high school graduation exams have been pushed forward so students can remain glued to the TV in June — just like everybody else.

"Being at the World Cup is viewed as a symbol of Algeria's return to the international stage," said Nasser Djabi, a sociology professor at Algiers University. "It's a form of national revival, especially for the youth who don't believe in much."

Algeria was forced to beat Egypt in a one-match playoff to qualify for the tournament in South Africa, becoming the sole Arab nation at this year's World Cup. It is in a first-round group with England, the United States and Slovenia.

The task ahead is not easy.

"We'll do our best, though it's a massive challenge," Algeria coach Rabah Saadane said. "It's an achievement to be qualified. To make it to the second round would be startling.

"England, especially, is a high caliber. Whatever technical deficiencies we may have, we'll compensate by playing with all our heart."

The World Cup offers a rare moment of national unity and optimism in a country beset by a lackluster economy, regular riots, near-weekly bombings or ambushes by al-Qaida-linked terrorists. There's deep mistrust between secular-leaning state forces and former Islamist insurgents who faced off in a bloody civil war in the 1990s, killing an estimated 200,000 people.

"We'll make our people proud," Saadane said.

Djabi noted that a return to the sporting elite shows things in general can get better.

"People see it on par with security slowly improving, and some social services and housing concerns getting better," the professor said.

Saadane was even more effusive, saying qualification has "produced immense pride. In fact, it's our proudest moment since independence."

That's saying a lot in a country where the long and bitter war with France, its former colonial ruler, and the 1962 independence remain seminal moments and constant political references.

The team, known as the "Fennecs," or "Desert Foxes," hasn't played at a World Cup since 1986, when it was eliminated in the first round. Before that, Algeria beat West Germany — one of the favorites — in the 1982 World Cup, but was still eliminated after an infamous match in which West Germany beat Austria 1-0, conveniently sending both teams through. That match led to a change in FIFA's scheduling rules.

For this year's World Cup, Saadane has already chosen a 25-man squad, but he will have to drop two players by June 1.

"I need to know what their game is like, what their physical shape is," Saadane said of his team. "That's why I need as much time as I can get."

Some of those players have never suited up for Algeria, but that's not a surprise because the majority of the team was either born or raised in France. Many never even had Algerian passports until recently, but that won't likely bother the fans who want to see the team succeed.

The pressure is so strong on the team in Algeria this time that Saadane decided they couldn't train at home — or even in France. The Desert Foxes will instead spend time ahead of their June 13th opening match against Slovenia training at altitude in the Swiss Alps.

"There were just too many fans here and in France," Saadane said. "We needed a more neutral place to regroup."