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‘The other French team’: Soccer and independence in Algeria

Fans of Algeria’s soccer team celebrate World Cup qualification in Algiers on Nov. 19, 2013. Twelve people died in the celebrations (AP Photo/Sidali Djarboub)

Today we continue our series on politics, political science and the World Cup (here are posts 12, and 3) with a look at identity, politics, and football in Algeria and France. First up is Tony Ross, who examines how soccer got tied up in Algeria’s struggle for independence but now exemplifies the country’s continued ties to France. 

Algeria’s fourth World Cup appearance begins on June 17th against highly rated Belgium. The analysts’ consensus is that World Cup 2014 will be three games and a long flight home for the Desert Foxes. Of course, just making it to Brazil could be considered a worthy accomplishment for what some regard as a third- or fourth-string French squad. However, Algeria’s greater triumph is how, over the last 15 years, it has leveraged its colonial legacy, flexible notions of nationality and identity, and the rules of international soccer, to rebuild its national soccer on a foundation of French-born talent.

The cross-pollination between French and Algerian soccer dates back more than 75 years, with the Algerian player Abdelkader Ben Bouali generally credited as the first Arab to play in French blue – appearing in a friendly match against the Irish Free State in 1937. By the time Algerian war for independence ignited in 1954, there were a number of Algerians playing in the French professional leagues and several playing in the blue jersey of the French national team.

As the 1958 World Cup approached, the squad slated to represent France was quite strong and included two Algerians who were expected to start: Mustapha Zitouni and Rachid Mekloufi. However, two months before the tournament, these two players, along with eight other French-based Algerian players, slipped out of France and made their way to Tunisia to form the core of Équipe FLN. This became the “national” team of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) independence movement, representing Algeria’s fight for liberation from France.

Équipe FLN was the brainchild of Mohamed Boumezrag, who had played professionally in France and was inspired by the political potential of sport while attending the World Festival of Youth and Students in Moscow in 1957. He brought the idea of a soccer team to the FLN leadership, where it was enthusiastically received by FLN leader and independent Algeria’s first president, Ahmed Ben Bella. A handy central midfielder who turned down a professional contract from Olympique de Marseille in 1940 in order to re-enlist in the French army, Ben Bella earned the croix de guerre and médaille military for bravery.

From 1958-62, Équipe FLN would play somewhere between 50 and 100 exhibition matches depending on which source is consulted. These games were mostly in the Middle East and Eastern Europe but as far afield as China and North Vietnam, where General Giap is said to have apologized for kicking the French paratroopers all the way to Algeria. Although the team was quite successful on the field, winning somewhere around three quarters of its matches and playing an attractive game, the real victory came before each game, as the Algerian anthem was played and flag displayed per the conditions of their appearance.

The French, were, of course, furious about the “defection” of such high-profile athletes and sought unsuccessfully to have FIFA punish any nation whose team played Équipe FLN. The players who were still theoretically covered by French military service rules – including Mekloufi – were sentenced in absentia to10 years in prison for desertion.

However, once Algeria’s independence was won in 1962, most returned to play for their old French clubs. Mekloufi returned to an especially long and illustrious career, capped by two goals in the 1968 French Cup final to lead St. Etienne to victory, resulting in President DeGaulle personally bestowing the winner’s medal on him. (French readers can read more about Équipe FLN here and here. Those seeking a contemporary equivalent of Équipe FLN may wish to “like” the Facebook page of the “Dromedaries” who play soccer on behalf of the independence movement for the Western Sahara.)

As for the ’58 French team, despite the distraction of losing two starters they did quite well in Sweden, bowing out in the semifinals to eventual champions Brazil. Even with the two Algerians missing from the squad, they had other colonial players at their disposal. Indeed, the surprise of the tournament was their Spanish-Moroccan striker Just Fontaine, whose 13 goals in the tournament stands as a record that is unlikely to ever fall.

Fast forward to 2014. Algeria’s roster is more than two-thirds French-born, and eight of the 23 players have represented France in international youth soccer. Basically, if you’re born in France to parents of Algerian descent and are very good — like Manchester City’s Samir Nasri, Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema, and arguably the greatest French player ever, Zinedine Zidane — you play for France. If you’re only pretty good, you play for Algeria. (Before any American readers start picking up stones to cast, consider the glass house that is the U.S. roster, which includes seven European-bred players who have variously represented Germany, Iceland, and Norway in international soccer.)

To understand how this year’s Algerian team is so, well, French, it’s necessary to turn the clock back to 1990. In March of that year, Algeria hosted — and won — the African Cup of Nations with a strong team. A year and a half later, the country was slipping into the grim civil war that would consume the rest of the decade and 100,000-150,000 lives. Although the national team continued to play, a generation of young people was lost to the carnage or fled the country, while the sporting infrastructure was one of the many civil institutions destroyed during this lost decade.

Faced with having to more or less completely rebuild its program, and having seen the success enjoyed by a Zidane-led French team, the Algerian federation cannily identified France as a potentially free talent incubator. They embarked on a successful lobbying campaign to get FIFA to change its eligibility rules with regards to under-21 players holding dual nationality. This bore fruit in 2004 when the first player to switch his national eligibility under new FIFA rules was Antar Yahia, who played in French blue at the under-16 and under-18 national level, and then switched to Algerian green.

Encouraged by the French-trained crop of players now available to them, the Algerian federation proposed even greater liberalization of eligibility, and in 2009, FIFA members voted in regulations that said so that as long as a player hadn’t played a competitive game for a senior squad, they could switch eligibility. Hence the French-heavy team that will represent Algeria in World Cup 2014. When they take the field on the 17th to face a potent multicultural Belgian lineup featuring players of Moroccan, Congolese, Kosovar, Spanish, Malian, and Martiniquais descent, Algeria’s Desert Foxes truly remain, as Le Monde famously called them in 2010, “the other French team.”

Tony Ross lived in Algeria from 1976-81 and now works for the public library system in Washington, DC. His current work revolves around the geography of literatureHere is more from Tony on Algerian soccer history.