Leading Algerian players in the French league met up to form a national team for the 1958 World Cup – a team for the FLN,
They had a rendezvous with a former player, Mohamed Boumezrag, who took them to
These players were children when, on 8 May 1945, celebrations in
Algerians serving in the French army came home to find members of their families dead. The footballers recall that during their childhoods the colonists declared their loyalty to Marshal Pétain every morning as the tricolour was raised. "We regarded them as traitors to their country. The Algerian Jewish community were on our side and we protected them."
They blossomed in
The FLN team grew up with football and left to cross the Mediterranean to
Encouraged by their families, the team toured the Middle East, eastern Europe and
Exile in Tunis in 1958 had shocked Mekloufi, the Saint-Étienne star. "I had no political awareness. The FLN team taught me everything." He became familiar with refugee camps, wartime atrocities and the daily struggle for survival. After independence in 1962, he administered football – a religion in Algeria second only to Islam. He became interested in factories, the unemployed, the homeless and migrants: "We helped the kids understand life and politics." He has watched a shift in attitudes on the other side of the Mediterranean. "Professional footballers, and that includes immigrants playing for French teams, don’t care about the sufferings and misfortunes of others. All they’re interested in is making money. Sooner or later, money will kill football. People will just stop going to matches."
Algerians were caught between Islamist and state violence in the nightmare of the 1990s. Physical suffering was worsened by corruption. Billions of dollars disappeared into foreign bank accounts: generals, ministers and presidents feathered their own nests, meanwhile deploring the funding of fundamentalists by Iranian, Afghan, Saudi and Algerian networks.
From one triumph to the next
The national team repeated its 1982 triumph, beating Nigeria 1-0 in the final of the Africa Cup of Nations in 1990. Algeria’s reaction to its status as a major footballing nation was intense and complex. The national federation appealed to French players of Algerian origin and to Algerians playing in French clubs. It capped them alongside existing players. The fans loved it, despite divisions among the players. During the 1982 World Cup, the French language paper El Moudjahid provoked nationalist reaction by attacking Mekloufi for his selection of too many French players.
He said that he went for quality: "Until 1978, Algerian football was archaic. Players trained from noon to two. We freed up their time." But Mekloufi never managed to shake off his past as a French international, and kept his eyes on players in the championship across the Mediterranean.
The goal that won Algeria the 1990 Africa Cup was scored by Chérif Oudjani, a player with RC Lens in northern France. He was the son of the legendary Ahmed Oudjani, another member of the pre-independence FLN team. Chérif played for a succession of French clubs: "I was told I had a future with the national side, but there were rivals who were stronger than me. Then the Algerian team approached me." He might even have played for both countries. "Those of us who weren’t born in Algeria took some stick. There wasn’t exactly a rivalry – more a sort of uneasiness among the players. The fans didn’t have a problem though. And my relations within the team were perfectly friendly."
Mustapha Dahleb, Paris Saint-Germain’s leading goal-scorer during the 1970s, never expected to play for a French team. He was born in Algeria and came to France at the age of nine. His childhood idols were the Moroccan Larbi Ben Barek (1914-92), the first north African star of French football, and the members of the FLN team. "These were the first Muslims to play soccer in France. We realised that despite our different origins we could succeed." Dahleb felt at home in the Algerian team: "I was a born nationalist. Today an emigré would struggle."
The original FLN players cannot recognise the contemporary game. They say: "Corruption has taken over. Money has replaced God. Government subsidies are siphoned off by club presidents and officials." Nobody pays taxes and the groundwork is being neglected. They continue: "Everybody is fixated on the national side, but that depends upon young players at club level. You have to scout for players and build more grounds instead of pocketing the cash. We haven’t invested enough in young players. Politicians haven’t paid sufficient attention to the impact of the sport on the country. If Brazil wasn’t football mad, there’d be a revolt every 10 years. The Algerian government still hasn’t realised that football calms things down…"
Dahleb is not convinced that in France the involvement in football of youngsters from the estates will solve the problems of ghettoisation. "Once the game is over, the kids still have real problems to face. Sport and music have been unifying factors, but we have to do more." Plans to rescue the banlieues have achieved nothing. "There is an abyss separating them from the rest of the country… They are humiliated by the lack of housing and work. Sport is great and it might help make things better… if only they were at ease with themselves."
As for matches: "It’s grotesque. You’d think the nation depended on it." He accuses people of failure in the face of racism and the infiltration of the terraces by the extreme right: "I didn’t see any of it until 1985. The clubs excluded people like that, and at the least insult all the players would have walked off the pitch. But football has been taken hostage."
Chérif Oudjani, now a coach, sees football as a reflection of society. The word integrated makes him angry. "I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean. I’ve always respected the law. They’ve always used that against us: are you more Algerian than French? As if you had to choose between your father and mother. I was born here."
On 6 October 2001 France played Algeria in a friendly, the first official encounter since the war of independence, which inspired hopes of reconciliation and fear of the reaction from the banlieues. Since the 1998 World Cup, Zinédine Zidane had been hailed as a model of integration. The media called on him and all the children of immigrant parents to declare themselves French. On the day of the match, Le Monde quoted him as saying: "For the first time in my life, I won’t be upset if the French team doesn’t win." On RTL television he said: "I hope this will be a good show for us French and for us Algerians." The reaction was immediate. In Le Figaro, Ivan Rioufol wrote: "Zinédine Zidane makes no secret of his affection for his Algerian roots, but it would be good if he were to state that he is clearly, that is to say, exclusively, French."
The intensity of the controversy persuaded the historian Yvan Gastaut, president of We Are Football (2) to analyse the thinking behind it: "Rather than openness and friendship, this match has insidiously encouraged exclusion. In the name of a republican ideal that has rigidified to the point of paralysis, people are being forced to choose their country of birth, France, over that of their parents, Algeria." By the time the match was played, the stakes were so high that a fiasco was inevitable. Supporters booed the Marseillaise, to encourage the weaker team, so they claimed. In the 76th minute, with France leading 4-1, 100 young fans made a peaceful pitch invasion, most "to protest against the unequal score" but a few to utter a provocative "Vive Bin Laden!" According to Gastaut: "This was an act of pure stupidity and vacuity, perpetrated by kids who wanted to get their faces on TV and touch the players."
In December 2006, following Zidane’s retirement, he was greeted like a head of state in Algeria. He had come to check that funds collected at a charity match had gone to the victims of an earthquake. In the presence of former FLN players, he was honoured by president Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Amar Rouaï said: "I like the boy. But I think they made a bit much of him. It would have been nice if the president had honoured Zitouni too." Mekloufi said: "Zidane is a great guy who respects his roots. He heard about the FLN team from his father. He’s always been a child of the banlieues. He understands that he has to repay what football has given him."
Chérif Oudjani has only been back to Algeria twice since his victory in the Africa Cup final. Since the 1990s this French footballer with a Lens accent has been waiting for his ancestral land to move on. ________________________________________________________
Dominique Le Guilledoux is a journalist
(1) See Mohammed Harbi, "Massacre in Algeria", Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, May 2005.
(2) We Are Football is an association dedicated to football history and memory. It organised a colloquium in Marseilles where academics and representatives of north African footballers in France met to discuss their professional experiences and complex identities. See "Les footballeurs maghrébins de France au XXe siècle: itinéraires professionnels, identités complexes", Migrance 29, Génériques, May-June 2008.
Translated by Donald Hounam
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