Football, the tool for independence

Algerians are blessed with sublime football skills and the country has acted as a nursery, too, for French soccer.

Algeria, a former French colony, has over the years acted as a steady supply line of talent for the France national side. Players like Zinedine Zidane, Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri are of Algerian descent.

But back in 1958, in a reversal of sorts, nine Algerian footballers playing in Ligue 1 defected and joined an Algerian national squad backed by the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN). The players, including striker Rachid Mekhloufi (Saint Etienne) and defender Mustapha Zitouni (Monaco), who were part of the France squad slated to take part in the 1958 Sweden World Cup, were protesting against France’s occupation of their homeland.

They sacrificed money and fame and as “football revolutionaries” toured the world, winning their first game against Tunisia 8-0. Naturally, there was an uproar in France and the national federation requested FIFA to ban the teams which played against the FLN rebels. The French national side, meanwhile, reached the semi-finals in Solna, where a player called Pele, all of 17 years old, tormented their defence, scoring a hat-trick in a 5-2 Brazilian win. Many blamed the lack of discipline in the French defence to the unavailability of Zitouni, who was the lynchpin prior to his defection.

Algeria had been invaded and annexed as a sovereign part of France in 1838 and by the mid-20th century, the country had a million European settlers staying alongside nine million local Muslims, who of course were treated as second-class citizens. The early clubs in the region were predominantly meant for the colonisers and the left out locals had to establish their own sporting organisations. In 1898 the first Muslim club was formed in Constantine and was named Ekbal Emancipation.

Soon the natives used sport as a medium of liberation and Boughera El-Ouafi won the marathon at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, France’s only gold medal at the meet.

The governing class, however, didn’t like the local domination of football and a circular in 1928 made it compulsory for clubs to field three European players, the ratio being increased to five in 1935.

The end of World War II and the mass independence of countries across the globe stoked the fire of freedom in Algeria too and the FLN was formed in 1954 to overthrow the French rulers.

Ahmed Ben Bella, independent Algeria’s first president and the FLN leader instrumental in the players’ coup, was a keen follower of football, and even played for Olympique de Marseilles as a central midfielder in 1939, while serving in the French military.

The decolonisation of the country in 1962 at the behest of French leader Charles de Gaulle brought an end to FLN’s rebel team and Algeria became an independent FIFA member in 1964.

Qualifying for the 1982 World Cup, the nation shocked European champion West Germany 2-1 in the first match, becoming the first African team to beat a European opponent. The team, however, was knocked out from the group stage after the West Germans played listlessly, for a 1-0 win over Austria in the final group game, now known as the “Shame of Gijon.” The appalled neutrals cried foul and angry Algerian supporters waved banknotes at the errant players, while a German fan burnt the national flag in disgust. The result took both West Germany and Austria to the second stage at the expense of the Desert Foxes.

Algeria qualified for the Mexico World Cup, but failed to go beyond the group stage again. However, four years later, Algeria registered its biggest triumph, winning the African Cup of Nations.

The host defeated Nigeria 1-0 in the final in front of 1,05,302 fans at Stade 5 Juillet in Algiers on July 5.

* * * 11 passes and a goal!

Mustapha Rabah Madjer almost singlehandedly won Porto its first European Cup in Vienna in 1987. Scoring the equaliser against Bayern Munich in the 77th minute, the Algerian striker set up Filho Juary to score the winner four minutes later. Madjer also scored for the club in its Intercontinental Cup victory the same year and was awarded the Ballon d’or Africain, missing out on the European honour as he was not born in the continent.

His greatest moment for the national side, for which he played for 19 years, came when he scored the opening goal in the 53rd minute in the 2-1 win over West Germany in the 1982 World Cup in Spain.

Madjer’s team-mate from the 1982 and ’86 World Cup squads, Lakhdar Belloumi, was voted the fourth best “African Player of the 20th Century” by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics (IFFHS). Belloumi scored the second-half winner in Gijon against West Germany, a minute after Karl-Heinz Rummenigge had equalised Madjer’s opening strike. “We put together 11 passes without one German player touching the ball. They’d just equalised but we went straight up to their end and scored again,” Belloumi says.

However, the attacking midfielder’s international career ended in controversial circumstances when he was implicated in the assault on the Egyptian team doctor, who was blinded by flying glass, during a qualifying game for Italia 90. An international arrest warrant was issued against Belloumi, but that was rescinded a year later.