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Rais M’Bolhi: Algeria’s goalkeeper proving again he’s a man for the big occasion at AFCON

Michael Yokhin

08:49 23/01/2015

It is difficult to become a revelation at the World Cup, but impossible to do it twice, right? After all, your name is on everyone’s lips when you perform at the biggest stage, and your career is supposed to be on the rise afterwards, unless it was a fluke. Tell that to Rais M’Bolhi, who bizarrely managed to stun the football world as a complete unknown both in 2010 and in 2014. After also starting the current African Cup on Nations in superb fashion in a 3-1 win over South Africa, it’s time to take a look at the Algerian goalkeeper's unusual career to date. 

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For starters, M’Bolhi has an unorthodox background for someone who plays for Algeria. He was born in France like most of the squad, but only his mother is Algerian, while the father is of Congolese origins. While he spent his childhood in Paris, Rais started his career with PSG's fiercest rivals Olympique Marseille. He played well for their reserve team, but wasn’t retained in 2005 in spite of representing France at Under-18 level. Thus began a decade of wandering, with M'Bohli making some spectacularly poor career choices alog the way. 

M’Bolhi signed for Scottish side Hearts when they were in total disarray under erratic Lithuanian owner Vladimi Romanov, who seemed almost addicted to signing players. The keeper soon lost patience and decided to leave after just six months without playing a single game, moving to Greece to experience two unhappy stints at small clubs Ethinikos and Panetolikos. 

Then an unexpected call from Philippe Troussier took place, the French coach who managed Japan at the 2002 World Cup, started a new project as a technical director at Japanese third division side Ryukyu, and M’Bolhi was tempted to try his luck in the Land of the Rising Sun. At long last, he was playing regularly, but the level of competition was very low and just a few months later the keeper made his way back to Europe to sign for Slavia Sofia.

The 2009/10 season in Bulgaria was the best of his career so far. M’Bolhi was voted the best player by Slavia fans, and was extremely surprised to get two sensational calls. First he was invited for a trial at Manchester United, where Patrice Evra took care of the fellow Frenchman. Then Algeria coach Rabah Saadane  decided to name him in a squad ahead of the World Cup. Very few fans in the homeland of his mother have ever heard of him, and thus the press was initially highly critical of the decision in the first place. However, Rais gradually proved himself in training, and Saadane gambled on him after first-choice keeper Faouzi Chaouchi made a costly mistake in a defeat to Slovenia in their World Cup opener. 

That’s when the whole world sat up and took notice. M’Bolhi might have had little to do in a desperately boring goalless draw against England, but  keeping a clean sheet was naturally a perfect start, and in the next game the Algerian showed breathtaking skills. United States needed to win to qualify from the group, but found M’Bolhi unbeatable before Landon Donovan finally broke the deadlock in injury time. 

Tim Howard was immensely impressed in American goal. “Their keeper was exceptional. Our finishing wasn’t the problem, it was the fact that M’Bolhi was in incredible form and managed to get his body in the way at crucial moments. It was really extraordinary”, he said. The Algerian himself was proud of his contribution. “Maybe I will be back in Brazil 2014”, he remarked.

Back he was, but by then nobody could remember his name again. M’Bolhi’s agents certainly didn’t do a good job of capitalising on their client's fine exhibition of his skills. For some strange reason, the Algerian was first loaned out to CSKA Sofia, and then sold to lowly Russian outfit Krylia Sovetov Samara, who paid just Dh 3.3 million (€800k) for his services.

That was a huge mistake. Samara president Viktor Razveev initially stated: “We have signed a world class goalkeeper, who chose us despite having other good offers”. However, the club expected M’Bolhi to learn Russian, and the keeper found it hard to get used to the surroundings, especially without fellow Muslims around him. Things turned for the worse when a coaching change occurred in 2011, with Andrey Kobelev refusing even to look at him. 

M’Bolhi was considered to have failed without getting a decent chance, and the choice might not have been made based purely on sporting basis, since Kobelev’s assistant Denis Ugarov later bizarrely claimed: “Rais has problems with his eyes, but refused to wear contact lenses”. According to him, M’Bolhi didn’t see shots from distance and was poor coming off his line for the same reason. The club denied those statements, but the president was adamant that the unhappy Algerian must stay until the end of his contract. 

You must be tired of reading about all those misfortunes, so we’ll make the long story short. Following a loan spell at Gazelec Ajaccio, who were relegated to third division in France, M’Bolhi lost his place for Algeria after a 3-2 defeat in a World Cup playoff clash with Burkina Faso. Mohamed Zemmamouche played in a 1-0 win in the return leg and was widely expected to start the tournament in Brazil. At the very last second, however, coach Vahid Halilhodzic decided to give M’Bolhi the nod – and struck gold.

The keeper played brilliantly as Algeria made it out of their World Cup group for the first time, and was especially outstanding in the second round against Germany, keeping the eventual champions at bay for 90 minutes and forcing the game into extra time with a stupendous save from a header by Thomas Muller. Once again, Rais was at his very best when it mattered most. He was named Man of the Match even though the Germans eventually won.

At the age of 28, the decision was crucial this time. M’Bolhi was at CSKA Sofia again, who suffered from grave financial problems, and needed to find a top team that suited his level. Nevertheless, his agents offered him to Philadelphia Union in the MLS. The Americans agreed to sign him, despite having two decent keepers on their books already in Zac MacMath and Jamaican Andre Blake. It appeared a very unwise move for all involved, and so it proved.

M’Bolhi arrived in the middle of MLS season, had to return to Paris for personal reasons and was involved in a car crash. Upon making a belated debut in late August, he failed to displace MacMath, and finished the year with just four games to his name. In the last of them, against Chicago Fire, the Algerian was guilty of a very bad injury-time mistake that enabled Robert Earnshaw to score the equaliser, and bury the Union’s playoff chances for good.

Overall, it wasn’t really M’Bolhi’s fault. Local U.S. football writer Jonathan Tannenwald told Sport360: “Philadelphia’s constant cycling through goalkeepers has become a running joke around MLS”. However, the keeper didn’t arrive at AFCON 2015 in Equatorial Guinea in the  best mood. Once again he had to prove doubters wrong. Once again he managed to do so, with some aplomb.

Algeria’s defence was at sixes and sevens against South Africa, and Bafana Bafana should have won comfortably, but M’Bolhi managed to limit them to a single goal before the favourites scored thrice late in the game, including a majestic strike by Faouzi Ghoulam (read more on him here), to take the three points. 

A win against Ghana will ensure a place in the quarterfinals, and M’Bolhi hopes to be up to the task again, probably on the way to win his first title in his career. Who knows, maybe 2015 will be his year at long last at club level as well, be it in Philadelphia, who loaned out MacMath to Colorado Rapids, or elsewhere. Good luck, Rais!

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