USM Alger: The Antar Yahia era

“I do not sell dreams”

Most African football fans will remember the name Antar Yahia for his famous volley goal for Algeria against Egypt in a tense 2010 FIFA World Cup qualifier that sent the Desert Foxes to their first World Cup in 24 years. Just over 10 years later since that thrilling November night in Sudan, the former Algeria defender is trying to create a new legacy, this time as the Sporting Director of Algerian League 1 club USM Alger.

After an extensive playing career that saw him join Inter Milan as a teenager and included stints with Nice, Bochum & Espérance of Tunisia, Yahia finally decided to hang up the boots at the end of 2016 after one final season with French Ligue 2 club Orléans. The former Algeria international, who made 53 appearances for the Algeria national team and played at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, remained at the club after his retirement, taking on the role of Sporting Director. However, in November 2019, he was relieved of his duties with Orléans languishing at the bottom of the French second division table.

Earlier this year, USM Alger, under the new ownership of Serport, appointed Yahia to take over the vacant Sporting Director role. After a complicated season which saw the club’s bank accounts frozen, the club’s previous owner Ali Haddad jailed on corruption charges and some players going as long as 9 months without being paid their salary, USM Alger was looking for a new beginning and a fresh start.

“I chose USM Alger because the new front office of the club has a clear vision on the project that they are trying to accomplish,” Yahia told the club’s website in May shortly after his appointment. “I also have a clear idea of the work I want to accomplish with USM Alger, especially in developing young players, to be able to build a professional club in the future. We have to first build a solid base to have a team that can perform at all levels.”

In a recent interview, Yahia reiterated that objective: “Our principle objective, not only as a team but as a club, is to produce players, coaches and educators.”

Due to covid-related travel restrictions, Yahia was not able to travel to Algeria until August. However, upon his arrival, he has wasted no time in getting down to business. First, Yahia appointed an entirely new coaching staff, including new manager Fabio Ciccolini, who had a brief experience in Algerian football with JS Kabylie in 2014. The Frenchman will be assisted by two French-Algerians who will be able to facilitate the cultural and linguistic barriers of Algerian football: assistant coach Benaraibia Bouziane and goalkeeper coach Mohamed Benahmou.

Next, Yahia extended the contracts of several players including veteran goalkeeper Mohamed Lamine Zemmamouche, as well as key players like Hamza Koudri, Aymen Mahious and Abderrahim Hamra. USM Alger has also signed six new players, among them two French-Algerians, Oussama Abdeldjelil from Paris FC, and Alexis Guendouz from AS Saint-Etienne. Three more players from players are expected to join from France, including former Monaco youth product Mehdi Beniddine, a former teammate of Kylian Mbappé, as well as Angers reserve team players Mazire Soula and Salim Akkal.

However, despite the transformation the team has undergone, Yahia insists that it will take a while before we see the fruits of his labor. Asked on whether he can deliver USM Alger’s first ever CAF Champions League trophy, Yahia said “he does not sell dreams.”

“We all have dreams, but we have to live in the real world and today we’re not ready. We want to build a strong team, based on the development and progression of players, that can compete to win the African Cup every year, not just once every 10 years. You must have resources, not just financial, but also technical, as well as players, coaches and front office staff to become a favorite to win the Champions League. We want to work towards that.”

With the Algerian league set to resume play on November 20th, Antar Yahia will have his work cut out for him.