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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.

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