Words by Maher Mezahi
All eyes honed in on Yacine Brahimi following a breakout debut half-season at Porto when the Algerian international took the Champions League by storm, scoring 5 goals, providing 3 assists, and sweeping BBC’s 2014 African Footballer of the Year with more than 50% of an online vote.
The Parisian-born prodigy became the first Algerian player to ever win the award, and the first Algerian to win a continental accolade since Rabah Madjer, another Algerian attacking midfielder who plied his trade at Porto, won the African Ballon D’Or in 1987.
But 2015 has not been as kind to Porto’s number eight. Brahimi was hounded by opposing defences in Equatorial Guinea at the Africa Cup of Nations. The tender nature of the playing surface held Algeria and Brahimi at bay, and favoured a more aerial and physical style of play. Brahimi ended up leading all players in successful dribbles completed, but he was also the second-most fouled player, as defenders took him down an astounding 4.5 times per match. Learning to play against multiple defenders and negative tactical schemes has been Yacine Brahimi’s biggest challenge in 2015.
Fortunately, Brahimi rediscovered some of his form back in Porto, where he shared the spotlight with Jackson Martinez, Oliver Torres, Danilo, and Ricardo Quaresma. In the Champions League Round of 16, Brahimi was voted man of the match against Basel as Porto thrashed the Swiss champions, 4-0. In the next round they nearly upset Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich. The crushing nature of their quarterfinal elimination set the tone for the rest of Brahimi’s 2015. The Algerian has performed well enough to mollify doubts of a prolonged purple patch, but not well enough to generate as big a buzz as he enjoyed in the past.
But Christian Gourcuff still has doe eyes for the diminutive midfielder, placing his trust in Brahimi’s playmaking abilities. Though Algeria’s coach has an embarrassment of riches to call upon in attack, he has made Brahimi the centrepiece to his 4-4-2 formation. A pertinent example of just how much stock Gourcuff places in Brahimi could be observed during Algeria’s friendly match against Guinea in October. After going conceding two goals at the Stade 5 Juillet in Algiers, and with the public turning on their own players, Gourcuff introduced Brahimi who would transform the match instantaneously.
After the match, Gourcuff lashed out at the press, visibly frustrated with the way the match had panned out.
“When we have a Brahimi in the team, everything changes. The match turns in our favour. We saw a different match after he came on. Brahimi is underrated in Algeria. I don’t know of too many players that can do what he does.”
Highlight of the Year: Maturation on and off the pitch
Brahimi’s growth off the pitch also appears to have compounded his maturity on it. The 25-year-old became a father to a little girl in late 2014, and since then Brahimi has become a more visible leader for both Algeria and Porto. There is no greater evidence for this than last October when, during a friendly match against Senegal, he was handed the captain’s armband for the first time in his career.