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Algeria’s patriot games

Football became a potent expression of Algeria’s fight for independence, never more so than during the dramatic events that preceded the 1958 World Cup

An Algerian supporter at the semi-final match of the African Cupin 2010. Photograph: Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images
Mustapha Zitouni (centre) celebrates alongside his then French teammates Yvon Douis and Just Fontaine after an international at the Parc des Princes in March, 1958. A matter of weeks later, Zitouni had ‘defected’ to his native Algeria. Photograph: Presse Sports/freshfocus
Mustapha Zitouni keeps abreast of French football news while in ‘exile’ back home in Tunis. Photograph: Presse Sports/freshfocus

On June 26th, the last of the group games of the 2014 World Cup kicks off in Curitiba. Over 8,000 miles away, in Algiers, a group of men in their late 70s and early 80s, will have stayed up late into the night for this one, an especially resonant match for them. They will hope their younger compatriots will be lining up for Algeria versus Russia still with a shot at the second round. But, whatever the position in Group H, their evining will be rich with reminiscence.

Fifty-five years earlier, almost to the day, some of these veterans were in Leningrad. They had just touched down in the old Soviet Union for a key stage in one of the most extraordinary, and enduring sporting tours of the 20th century. None of those players would ever make it to a World Cup, yet they remain the absolute figureheads for Algerian football, the bravest and the best.

Ask Hamid Zouba (79) how the current squad would compare with his generation, and he’d suggest they tend to fall short in terms of drive and dedication. Ask Said Amara (81) and he’ll offer a sympathetic word on the difficulties Algeria’s 21st century coaches face, assembling a disparate squad drawn from clubs scattered across Europe and the Middle-East. Ask Mohamed Maouche (78) and he’ll smile from behind his long, grey professorial beard, and regret the absence of a great entertainer in the current side, a liberated number 10. All of these men have at times coached Algeria, a country for which they once sacrificed their professional careers, and their freedom.

Their bad luck was to be sportsmen at their peaks in the most violent period of France’s colonial occupation of a vast stretch of territory across the Maghreb in the mid-1950s. Their good luck was they had a sort of power, derived from their high profile in French society, as well as in their native Algeria. Maouche was typical. By 1955, he had been identified among the latest in a swelling group of excellent Algerian footballers taken on by clubs in the French championnat. As a 20-year-old, spotted playing as a skilful inside forward in Bologhine, a suburb of Algiers, he joined France’s Stade de Reims, who within months of his arrival had reached the very first final of the European Cup. “It was a bit of dream come true in one way,” he recalls.

By the end of his first full season in France he had been selected for the French military team, one upside of the stipulation that all Algerian men on the French mainland do French national service. He won the world military championship, along with his Algeria-born contemporary, the dazzling number 10 Rachid Mekhloufi, a star of the then French champions, Saint-Étienne. In early 1958, the pair of them would be among four Algerians short-listed for France’s squad to go to that summer’s World Cup in Sweden.

On the one hand, they felt flattered; on the other, they could not live entirely divorced from their experiences as immigrants whose families lived an edgy, dangerous day-to-day existence in North Africa, where the struggle for independence and Algerian sovereignty had turned into one of the most violent conflicts of the era. “You sometimes did not know who your enemies were,” Maouche says of the culture of suspicion, in which informants, militias, French soldiers, activists all struggled for control of the territory. “It was a horrible time in Algeria. We were all oppressed by it.”

Football, a group of these expatriate players gradually realised, could contribute to the liberation of their country. But it would involve danger and sacrifice. By the spring of 1958, several Algerians playing in the French championnat had had the idea of a wholesale defection put to them by the high command of the Front de Liberation Nationale, FLN, the most prominent and effective guerrilla organisation fighting an increasingly brutal colonial rule. The idea was dramatic: that a team of Algerian professionals would exit France over a weekend towards the climax of the French domestic season, gather at the headquarters of the FLN in independent Tunisia, which shared a border with Algeria, and from there launch an ‘illegal’ national team to represent Algeria’s nation-in-waiting.

There was much to give up. Freedom, for a start: those, like Maouche, who were still doing their compulsory French military service, albeit as sportsmen, faced charges of desertion, and arrest. Wealth, for another thing: Mohammed Zitouni, already a France international defender, earned a handsome salary at Monaco, and had just been the subject of a bid by Real Madrid.

Some Algerian players were reluctant; some refused to take part, and when pressure would not move them, they were told sternly that they must keep the plan secret. But enough prominent stars of France’s Ligue 1 gave their okays. They selected the weekend of April 13th-14th, 1958 for the grand exodus. France were due to play a friendly against Switzerland a few days later and Zitouni, now committed to turning his back on Les Bleus, was inked in for France’s first XI. His absence when the French squad gathered would be conspicuous and guarantee immediate impact and resonance, which was part of the FLN’s intention.

The fixture list for the championnat that Saturday and Sunday offered several favourable geographical factors. Some of the clubs with committed Algerian players were due to be at cities and towns reasonably close to the Swiss and Italian borders, exit points for the stars-turned-insurgents. As Maouche recalls: “It was very, very serious in the planning. Every detail was studied. We didn’t have big meetings about it, talks were almost always individual-to-individual. Of course there was a list, but hardly anybody knew all the other names that might be on it. It was all very secret. We had to reduce all the possible risks. But, of course, there was no zero-risk.”

The first of the defectors slipped out of France on the Friday night. But on the Saturday, some plans went awry, connections were missed. Maouche, off duty from Reims that Saturday because of a light injury, slipped easily into Switzerland, where he was due to rendezvous with a cadre of other players early on the Monday. Tall, upright, his dark hair brushed back, he entered the first-class waiting room at Lausanne station at 7am, looking every bit the privileged student or young professional. And he waited.

And waited. His accomplices never showed. It turned out a freak head injury during Saint-Etienne’s match had put Mekhloufi in hospital rather than leave him ready as planned, after the final whistle, to slip off towards the Swiss border. His cadre had thus been delayed, pending Mekhloufi’s discharge from hospital the next day. Concerned and cut off from this news, Maouche decided to return to Paris, where he reasoned he could contact some of the organisers to find out what had happened.

Barely had he disembarked the train in the French capital than he knew his own position was in serious jeopardy. “When I got to the station at Paris, that’s when I saw the newspaper front pages,” recalls Maouche. “L’Équipe had a huge headline saying ‘Nine Algerian players disappeared!’ and reporting that Maouche of Reims was one of those missing.” Later that day, he was arrested. “The first three days in the cell were hard. There was an especially vicious gendarme involved, very racist towards Algerians. I was badly beaten.”

But the majority did make it to Tunis. Zitouni and Mekhloufi were among them: two acts of sabotage on France’s World Cup plans. The coup had succeeded. Now, the campaign needed sustaining. A statement was issued from the FLN in Tunis announcing the arrival of the first footballers and declaring they had “answered the call to arms”. It continued: “As long as France wages a merciless war against their people and their nation, they now refuse to contribute their important and appreciated labours to French sport. Like all Algerians, they have had to suffer in the rapidly developing racist, anti-African and anti-Muslim climate.” Soon enough, photographs were being wired around the world of this renegade ‘Algeria’ team in jerseys bearing the star and crescent on their chests.

Fifa fretted. They would not recognise the ‘FLN team’, and threatened other countries with sanctions if they lined up teams against them. But the FLN team found plenty of allies, first in independent North Africa – where the routinely beat Moroccan and Tunisian sides – and then east of the Iron Curtain, in the socialist states whose governments actively supported the anti-colonial movements across Africa.

By the late 1950s, the FLN team were inundated with invitations, and regularly lining up to the stirring sound of the Qassaman, Algeria’s national-anthem-in-waiting. In Baghdad, they were serenaded by the Iraqi public with chants of “Vive Algeria, down with De Gaulle!” In Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh made a point of comparing the colonial experience there with the French grip on North Africa.

“We were the true ambassadors of Algerian independence,” reflects Maouche, who after a year incarcerated, was pardoned, evidence of a softening of posture by Charles De Gaulle’s French government, an acknowledgement that in France, the people were tiring of the Algeria crisis, even if, in Algiers, French loyalists fought ever harder, more brutally, to keep their corner of empire.

Once freed, Maouche recalls, he promptly set about assembling more recruits. He would become as deft at espionage as he was at inside-forward. Footballers’ forged passports and travel documents were secretly exchanged in grocery shops and hotel foyers. By the 1960s, the FLN team had become an expanded FLN squad. “We all had a sense we were carrying the flag for our country and our continent,” he says. “We would go to these different countries, and after games, I would sit across the table with curious, interested people and talk about the amalgam of people that make up Africa.”

They provided sporting master-classes, too. In Mao’s China, the FLN team gave coaching clinics to mass audiences. In Yugoslavia, the so-called ‘Brown Diamonds’ won plaudits for their flair. When the FLN Team took on the Yugoslav Olympic side, essentially the country’s national team, 80,000 watched Mekhloufi lead a dazzling 6-1 deconstruction of the opposition. In Leningrad, on June 25th 1959, they felt proud to hold a powerful Zenit to a 2-2 draw.

In all, the FLN team played 91 matches in four years – all of them away, naturally – and won 65. And the show came to end thanks to the main triumph they had been seeking, and, in their own way, accelerating. Algeria the nation celebrated its independence on July 5th, 1962.

Those who had fought for sovereignty abandoned their fatigues to return to civilian life. For many of those who had donned boots and shorts for the cause, the dividend of peace was a resumption of their club careers in France. Mekhloufi would go on to win titles at Saint-Etienne, but now as their Algerian star, no longer as a future star for les Bleus.

Maouche and Mekhloufi, like Zitouni, never got back a World Cup in place of the one they had sacrificed in 1958. But 20 years after independence, they both had roles coaching and managing the Algeria squad that came closest to matching the standards of the FLN era. Algeria in the early 1980s had Paris Saint-Germain’s Mustapha Dahleb, as celebrated in the French league of the 1970s as Mekhloufi had been in the 1950s, the magically gifted Rabah Madjer, of Porto.

Their iconic moment? Their opening game of the 1982 World Cup, Algeria’s first ever match at a finals: Algeria 2, West Germany 1. After that, the anti-climax, and one of the most notorious games in the tournament’s history: Austria-West Germany in the final fixture of the group. The Germans needed to beat Austria to go through; Austria could afford to lose by up to two goals and still join the Germans in the knockout stages at Algeria’s expense. West Germany scored after 10 minutes; neither team attacked after that. Even German commentators called the clear, cynical compromise a scandal. Algerians in the crowd angrily waved banknotes at the Austrian players.

Three times since then, Algeria’s ‘Desert Foxes’ have qualified for World Cups. They are yet to reach the last 16. Independent Algeria has had its dark periods, politically, and they impacted on its national game. The last time Algeria were African champions was 1990, just ahead of disputed general elections, states-of-emergency and violent confrontations between Islamist movements and an iron-fisted government.

As for the make-up of national team, two generations after its FLN pathfinders stole out of France, secretly and courageously, many of its leading lights now come from families for whom catching the boat across the Mediterranean was and is a way of life. Of the 11 who line up for Algeria against Russia on June 26th, at least six will probably have been born in France, spent most of their childhoods there, and had their professional apprenticeships at French clubs. Raise that subject with Mekhloufi, who at 77 still has sharp opinions, and he will vigorously lament the fact so few of the present Desert Foxes learned their football at Algerian clubs.

The enduring relationship with France, and its football, cuts both ways. Les Bleus’ finest footballer and provider of the greatest French glories? Zinedine Zidane, whose father came to France from his native Algeria seeking work in the 1950s, about the same time as the grandparents of Karim Benzema, who will be France’s centre-forward in Brazil.

As teenagers, Zidane and Benzema both made a decision about which of their two, sovereign countries they preferred to represent. Mostly, they weighed up the professional advantages. A generation or two earlier, their choice of flag would have been a choice based on factors a good deal more profound.