NNESBURG (AFP) Algeria abandoned African football obscurity this year to reach the 2010 World Cup and share the FIFA Best Mover award with Brazil.
A stunning victory over West Germany highlighted two consecutive World Cup appearances during the 1980s and the 'Desert Foxes began the following decade by hosting and winning the African Nations Cup.
But a solitary-goal success over Nigeria in Algiers proved the high-water mark for a national team that experienced far more lows than highs since with coaching changes failing to arrest the slide.
When drawn in the same final World Cup qualifying group as old foes Egypt, few outside Algeria believed they could top a mini-league completed by Zambia and Rwanda.
Having drawn in Kigali, the 'Foxes won four consecutive games and went to Cairo knowing even a one-goal defeat would clinch first place and a return to the most watched global sporting event.
Shaken by an attack on their bus in the Egyptian capital with rocks injuring several players, Algeria fell behind within 120 seconds and then held on until five minutes into stoppage time when Emad Moteab snatched a second goal.
The most gripping of the five groups finished with Algeria and Egypt level on points, goal difference and goals scored and they had to clash again four days later in steamy Sudan.
A hyper-tense showdown was settled by an Antar Yahia goal four minutes before half-time with the Germany-based defender slipping unnoticed into the penalty area and volleying a dipping cross past Essam al-Hadary.
It was a goal that advertised African football at its best, and a stark contrast to the ugliness surrounding the play-off with Egyptian property in Algiers damaged, citizens forced to return home, and a political war of words.
Crude nationalism often bubbles just below the surface of African football and the Algerian and Egyptian media stoked flames of intolerance that burnt long after the final whistle in Omdurman.
The survival of Algeria at the expense of Egypt was the major surprise of the World Cup campaign with Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana and Ivory Coast winning the other pools and hosts South Africa qualifying automatically.
Ivory Coast came off worse in a generally unkind tournament draw for Africa and must finish among the top two in a mini-league with Brazil, Portugal and North Korea to reach the knockout phase.
World Cup qualifiers doubled as eliminators for the 2010 African Nations Cup in Angola, whose desperate race to finish stadiums and related facilities on time was an action replay of Burkina Faso in 1998 and Mali four years later.
Back after a 26-year absence, Malawi were the biggest surprise among the 16 teams who made it with South Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo, Senegal and Morocco notable absentees.
South Africans, whose goal-shy national team ended the year ranked an embarrassing 18 in Africa and 85 in the world, drew some consolation from World Cup preparations that sent prophets of doom scurrying for cover.
The new Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban is an architectural masterpiece and the other nine venues are either finished or almost there as fears that South Africa would not cope with an ambitious building programme proved false.
DR Congo enjoyed unexpected success early and late in the year with the national team winning the African Nations Championship, a new competition reserved for home-based stars, in Abidjan.
Half the successful Congolese squad came from the Tout Puissant Mazembe club in the mining city of Lubumbashi and they bridged a 41-year gap by becoming African champions a third time, at the expense of Nigerian club Heartland.
Mazembe needed the away-goal rule to succeed and it was even closer in the second-tier African Confederation Cup as Stade Malien of Mali pipped favoured Entente Setif of Algeria on penalties after both won by two goals at home.
Africa flopped on the bigger club stage again, though, with the claim of coach Diego Garzitto that Mazembe could win the FIFA Club World Cup proving ultra optimistic as they finished sixth in a seven-team Abu Dhabi field.
The continent traditionally fares well in world age-limit championships and this trend continued as Ghana won the youth title after a shoot-out with Brazil in Egypt and junior hosts Nigeria finished runners-up behind Switzerland.