Since last December’s World Cup draw, the Algerian team has been, to my mind, underestimated. They’ve certainly had their ups and downs, and the coach has taken risks by incorporating some new players who weren’t present in qualifying. And the goalie who played so well against England, Raïs M’Bohli, did so during his first full international game for the team. But what we saw against England suggests that, in fact, this team will present a very strong challenge next week against the United States. Although the U.S. will be in a better position – if they win, they will go into the next round, while Algeria will both need to win and pray for things to work out in the favor in the England-Slovenia match — the Algerian team will fight hard for this victory. The players, and their fans, carry a lot of history into this match, history it’s worth knowing as we prepare to watch next week’s match.
Maybe I’m too sensitive, but the ESPN commentators who narrated the England-Algeria game struck me as a little patronizing. They spoke about the Algerian team as if it was a little cute, putting up a good fight but really no match for the English. The Algerians were “crafty,” the explained at one point, and emphasized their youth and inexperience compared to the heft of the English team. As the game went on, happily, they seemed a little shaken in their certainties. They conceded that the Algerians essentially controlled the game, dominating possession. But at times they seemed to suggest mainly that the English were having a bad day, as if they were by themselves on the pitch. Of course the key was that the Algerian team played with striking calm, creativity, offering up some nice moves, creative plays, and a staunch defense.
What struck me about the tone of the commentary was that it was as if it was a match between a great footballing power and a small nation, even a kind of interloper. In fact, though, the Algerian team carries with it and emerges from an deeply rooted and successful tradition of football that goes back to the early 20th century. As I describe in my book Soccer Empire, that tradition, like the Algerian team, developed at the crossroads of France and Algeria, and it produced many remarkable players. Football took off in Algeria in the early 20th century, and throughout the country many “Muslim” clubs developed. They often had uniforms and names that drew on Islamic themes, and indeed the colors that would become those of the Algerian flag were first commonly worn on football uniforms. The clubs became a site for contesting colonialism. By the 1930s, professional teams in France began scouting for players in North Africa, and by the 1950s there were many Algerian professional players in France. These included Rachid Mekloufi, a star at St. Etienne in that team’s great days.
The first Algerian national team was born in 1958, in the midst of the Algerian Revolution, when the anti-colonial F.L.N. launched an ambitious plan: recruiting Algerian professional football players in France to go into resistance by forming a team to represent the country seeking independence from France. Among them were two players — Mustapha Zitouni and Rachid Mekloufi — who had been selected to play for France in the 1958 World Cup. They were joined by a series of other very successful and popular professional players. All of them disappeared on day in April 1958, and showed up in Tunis. They took their support away from their French professional teams, and for the French international team, and declared they would now play for Algeria.
FIFA refused to acknowledge the Algerian team, but went further, penalizing several countries who allowed their teams to play Algeria. But the Algerian team (pictured below) traveled the world, playing in North Africa and the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia. Wherever they went, the Algerian national flag was raised, and the anthem sung, and eventually political institutions caught up with football.
After independence was won, Algeria gained membership in FIFA, but the national team struggled to get into the World Cup. In 1982, however, they made it, and carried out a brilliant defeat of Germany. As one Algerian commentator humorously effused, kids all over Germany had to ask: “Dad, where’s Algeria?”
But, in perhaps the most infamous case of collusion in the history of the World Cup, Austria and Germany made sure Algeria didn’t advance by playing a game that produced exactly the score needed for the two of them to go on. The incident is widely remembered today — FIFA responded by having the final matches in the group stages played at the same time, to try and prevent it from happening again — but the full weight of the action, and its symbolism, is sometimes overlooked. Two European teams colluded to make sure a non-European team was stopped. Algerian fans remember the incident deeply, and bitterly. And that memory makes this year’s hard won appearance in the World Cup all the more important.
Who is rooting for this Algerian team today? People in Algeria of course, but also the very large Algerian community in France and elsewhere in Europe. As commentators have repeatedly remarked, the majority of the players on the field yesterday were actually born in France and grew up there. M’Bohli, the goalie, was born of a father from the Congo and a mother from Algeria in France, and almost all the other players on the pitch had been born and raised in France as well. FIFA has helped make it possible for Algeria to field some of these players by making it possible for players who have been capped for one national team to play for another, even after the age of 21. But in fact this is nothing particularly new: Algerian and French laws set down at the time of independence have long allowed for double nationality, and over the years many players born of Algerian parents in France have played for the Algerian national team. Zidane, of course, didn’t — he chose to play with France as a teenager, luckily for France. But he had grown up an avid fan of both the Algerian and French teams, watching Algerian greats (among them one, not a relative, named Djamel Zidane) and inspired by them. And in this World Cup, Zidane not-too-subtly took sides. He lambasted Domenech (get in line…) about his destruction of the French team, but also served as an unofficial adviser to the Algerian team.
Everyone has, of course, noted the gaping whole on the French side left by Zidane’s commanding presence, his creativity, you could even say his soul. But some of that was on display on the part of the Algerian team yesterday. Especially given that, among his many controversial mistakes, Domenech did not select Karim Benzema for his squad — which had no players of North African background on it — it was striking to see the contrast between the two sides. The most inspiring French-born players in this World Cup, it turns out, are playing for Algeria. And in a way it is now the Algerian team which is doing what the French team — thanks to Zidane — long did, providing a symbol around which individuals in France of North African background in France can rally, and celebrate.
Last year, France and Algeria qualified for the World Cup on the same day. There were massive celebrations in France, especially Marseille — for Algeria. After the draw with England, Algerians in England and France celebrated again. Many certainly remembered 1982, and perhaps 1958 as well. The Algerian players will walk onto the pitch next week knowing everything is on the line. The burden of the past may be heavy to bear, or perhaps it will be a spur and an inspiration. Both the U.S. and Algeria will go onto the pitch feeling like this moment has been a long time coming, and hoping that it will turn out to be theirs.