Patriot Games: Algeria’s Football Revolutionaries
Football became a potent expression of Algeria’s struggle for independence, never more so than during the dramatic events that preceded the 1958 World Cup, as Martin Evans explains.
On April 15th, 1958 it was revealed that nine Algerian footballers had left the French league in protest at France’s four-year-long war against supporters of an independent Algeria. In a meticulously planned clandestine operation, the players made their way first to Switzerland and then to Tunis where, at the behest of Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN), they formed an Algerian national team.
There was uproar in France,which called on FIFA, the game’s international governing body, to expel any country that played against the FLN team. The French authorities were particularly incensed at Rachid Mekhloufi and Mustapha Zitouni,who had been selected for the French squad for the upcoming World Cup finals in Sweden. Mekhloufi had won the French championship with Saint Etienne in 1957 and was a gifted striker,while Zitouni was the lynchpin of the Monaco and France defence. Both were scheduled to play in a friendly against Switzerland in Paris on April 16th. In deciding to go to Tunis they were sacrificing fame and fortune on football’s greatest stage in the name of the national liberation struggle.
Nonetheless, France remained a much-fancied team. Cultivating a fast, flowing style, dubbed ‘champagne football’ because of the presence of five Reims players, their strike force of Raymond Kopa and Just Fontaine was outstanding. Fontaine’s tally of 13 goals in the 1958 finals is still a World Cup record. In the semi-finals, however, France faced Brazil, a team that included the 17-year-old Pele. It was a classic, free-scoring encounter which the French, down to 10 men after 20 minutes due to injury, lost 5-2,with Pele netting a hat-trick in the second half.Brazil went on to defeat Sweden in the final. Many believe that ifMekhloufi and Zitouni had been there the outcome would have been different.
Mekhloufi,who followed the semi-final on a radio in Tunis, was sentenced in absentia to 10 years imprisonment for dodging his military service.His defection underlined why Algeria was different from the rest of the French empire. Invaded in 1830, Algeria was annexed as a sovereign part of France, no different in theory to Normandy or the Côte d’Azur.By 1954 one million Europeans lived alongside nine million Muslims. Although the Algerians were treated as second-class citizens, sport was one of the few routes by which they could achieve recognition.At the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam, Boughera El-Ouafi won the marathon, France’s only gold medal. In 1936 Abdelkader Abbès became the first Algerian cyclist to participate in the Tour de France. In 1949 and 1950 Abder Ibrir played six times as the goalkeeper of France,while in 1956 Alain Minoumi won gold in the marathon at the Olympic Games in Melbourne.
In Algeria itself sport could never be divorced from the wider social context. Football matches between settler and Muslim teams frequently ended in violence on the pitch.Algeria had witnessed a huge expansion of Muslim football clubs in the 1920s and early 1930s, all clamouring to participate in the North African Championship established in 1927. These teams were particularly important to young Algerian men who found in them a collective identity denied by colonisation. They were nauseated by the triumphalism of the 1930 centenary commemorations,which reiterated one point above all others: the loyalty of the Muslim population which had been won over by the civilising mission of France. Speaking on May 7th to an assembled crowd in Constantine, eastern Algeria French President Gaston Doumergue proclaimed:
The celebration of the centenary will show in a decisive fashion the human, peaceful, just and beneficial character of the French colonisation methods and of the work of civilisation that she is pursuing.
Football teams were a challenge to the colonial centenary because they expressed Algerian nationalism through their names, their symbols and their strips. The name Mouloudia Club, for example, founded in August 1921 in the Casbah of Algiers, was taken from Mouloud, the festival celebrating the birth of the prophet Mohammed. Their team colours were the red and green of Islam.
Suspicious that these clubs were fronts for anti- French activity, the Native Affairs unit compiled regular reports detailing who was financing them and their links with political groups and parties. The authorities did not want football to become organised along racial lines and in 1928 a circular was introduced stating that all teams must have at least three European footballers, a ratio increased to five in 1935.Unsurprisingly, these rules were very unpopular among the Algerian clubs and their supporters. They tried to get round the quota, either by playing naturalised Muslims or claiming that it was impossible to recruit European members.Nothing was more important than football in forging a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Through football, young Muslim men were able to conquer public space and impose themselves physically.
This type of sporting nationalism, underlining the need for fit and healthy bodies to fight French rule, marked a generation of nationalists who formed the FLN in 1954. Ahmed Ben Bella, one of the FLN leaders and the first president of independent Algeria, was fanatical about football. Volunteering to serve in the French army in 1936 because, like sport, the military was one of the few avenues of advancement open to Algerians, Ben Bella was posted to Marseilles where in 1939 he played briefly as a central midfielder for Olympique de Marseilles.
Even before the defections of April 1958, the FLN saw football as a weapon in the struggle against colonialism. In May 1956, two clubs from Sidi-Bel-Abbès in the west of the country, one French, Le Sporting Club de Bel-Abbès, and the other Algerian, L’Union Sportive Musulmane de Bel-Abbès, competed in the final of the North African Cup.However,when the French team’s captain,Henri Calatayut, was allowed to be included by the football authorities, despite a suspension, the Algerians refused to play. At this point the FLN used the controversy to order all Algerian teams to withdraw from cup and league fixtures, in effect ensuring the demise of the competition.
Football provided the backdrop to two of the most notorious terrorist incidents of the conflict. On February 4th, 1957 the FLN amateurs of the Algiers settler team Sporting Club Universitaire d’El Biar caused a major shock in the French cup by beating Reims,who had reached the European Cup Final in 1956, 2-0. Six days later the returning heroes were playing Racing Universitaire Algérois at home when two FLN bombs exploded in the stadium, indiscriminately killing eight and leaving dozens more wounded. Then at the French cup final in Paris on May 26th, 1957 an FLN hit squad assassinated one of the pro-French Algerian politicians, Ali Chekkal, an event brilliantly recreated in Rachid Boudjedra’s 1981 novel, Le Vainqueur du Coupe (The Winner of the Cup).
Taking place against this backdrop,Mekhloufi and Zitouni’s defections were a remarkable coup for the FLN. By turning their back on the World Cup it showed that, for these players, Algeria was not French.By choosing not to wear the blue shirt of France they were rejecting all talk of equality and racial integration.
Joined by further defectors from the French league, Mekhloufi and Zitouni became the nucleus of a formidable FLN team. Preceding each game with the national anthem, the wider political significance of the ‘Desert Foxes’ was obvious. In their first encounter they thrashed Tunisia 8-0, no mean feat given that Tunisia had been finalists in the Pan-Arab Games in Beirut the year before.
Thereafter, the FLN team, styling themselves ‘football revolutionaries’, toured the Middle East,Asia and Eastern Europe to great acclaim, meeting Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam and Chou En-lai in China. They beat Morocco 5-1 in Casablanca in May 1958, before going on to register victories against Czechoslovakia, Libya, Romania and Yugoslavia.
In the meantime, the war continued.Unable to resolve the Algerian crisis, the Fourth Republic imploded in May 1958 and Charles de Gaulle returned to establish a strongly presidential Fifth Republic.Yet, if hardliners in the army and among the settler minority saw de Gaulle as the saviour of French Algeria, they were to be disappointed. De Gaulle came to the conclusion that there was no alternative but to negotiate with the FLN. So, in July 1962, after one of the longest and bloodiest wars of decolonisation, Algeria won independence.
Ferhat Abbas, president of Algeria’s provisional government established in September 1958, was in no doubt about the contribution of the FLN team. By taking the FLN cause across the world, he argued, they ‘advanced the Algerian revolution by 10 years’.
Mekhloufi rejoined Saint Etienne in 1962. From his first touch he was cheered. The fans’ hero had returned and he stayed for another six seasons, becoming captain and winning three French championships in 1964, 1967 and 1968. In the French cup final on May 12th, 1968, his last game for the club, the 32-year-old Mekhloufi scored two goals to bring about a stunning 2-1 victory over Bordeaux. His winner’s medal was presented to him by de Gaulle.
After independence the settler clubs disappeared, leaving the Algerian clubs to form a national championship which was launched in 1964. The same year Algeria joined FIFA, but the national team did not make an impact until the World Cup of 1982, held in Spain. There, in their first-ever World Cup match,Algeria overcame reigning European champions West Germany 2-1, still one of the tournament’s greatest upsets. Algeria’s participation, though, ended in controversy when West Germany played out a listless, timewasting 1-0 victory over Austria, a result that took both teams through to the second stage at the Desert Foxes’ expense. Appalled neutrals in the crowd chanted ‘out, out’,while furious Algerian supporters waved bank notes at the players. One Spanish newspaper even went so far as to call the match,‘El Anschluss’, recalling Nazi Germany’s takeover of Austria in 1938.
Algeria also qualified for the World Cup in Mexico in 1986, although again it failed to go beyond the group stage. Four years later, the national team registered the country’s greatest footballing triumph when, as the host of the Africa Nations Cup, it went on to win the competition, beating Nigeria 1-0 in the final in front of 200,000 jubilant fans at the July 5th, 1962 Stadium in Algiers.
Thereafter, during the 1990s, Algerian football went into a decline, marred by corruption scandals and the violence that blighted the country as the army confronted Islamist guerrillas. In this context Algerian football connected again with the colonial period as the terraces became spaces in which to bait the authorities. One chant greeted the news of President Liamine Zeroual’s resignation on September 11th, 1998 in the following manner:
The telephone rang The president has resigned It is just another trick What can I say If the country was stable for one hour We would escape on a merchant ship We would escape from Zeroual’s face I would call myself Michel And spend the night at the Eiffel Tower
Another, lionising the Islamist emir Hocine ‘Flicha’, captured and executed by the government in 1998, warned the onlooking police that ‘Flicha was coming after them’, before building up into a deafening crescendo intermingled with dog-like baying.
There remains, too, the complex relationship with France. Zinedine Zidane, one of the finest footballers of the last 30 years, was born to Algerian parents in Marseilles in 1972. In 1998 he was architect of the French World Cup triumph, scoring twice in the 3-0 win over Brazil in the final. The victory was claimed by many Algerians as their own. Yet, on October 6th, 2001, the first match between Algeria and France since the end of the war, dubbed the ‘match of reconciliation’, ended in acrimony. At the beginning La Marseillaise was jeered and in the 76th minute,with France winning 4-0, young Algerian supporters, many of them French citizens from the run-down estates on the outskirts of Paris, invaded the pitch, causing the match to be abandoned.
In the run-up to this year’s finals Algeria has been gripped by World Cup fever. Everywhere, as I saw while in the country in April, there are images of the Desert Foxes, though in some shops you can still see photographs of the original FLN team, invoking Algeria’s rich and patriotic footballing history.