Featured image: North Vietnamese premier M. Phan Von Dong shakes hands with the FLN team before their match against the North Vietnamese national team. Photo: M. Nguyen Duc Minh; 22 November 1959. (This image is now in public domain)
“A sport should not be just a game or entertainment for the urban bourgeoisie.”
– Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth
“They rule us with guns and machines. On a man to man basis, on the field of football, we can show them who really is superior.”
– Ferhat Abbas, Algerian revolutionary leader
In 1958, Rachid Mekhloufi was a rising star in the world of football. In his four years at Saint-Étienne, the short man from Algeria had scored an impressive 59 goals from 102 appearances. The previous year, Mekhloufi had been instrumental in helping the club win the Ligue 1 – their first ever league title. That same year, he had also featured in the French military team which won the Military World Cup in Buenos Aires and was set to earn his fifth French cap in a friendly against Switzerland at the Parc des Princes in Paris in April, 1958. He was also called up for the 40-man pre-selection squad for the upcoming World Cup in Sweden.
However, just days before the match, the man touted to partner the great Just Fontaine (who himself was of mixed French-Moroccan descent) up front in the French squad went missing. So did Mustapha Zitouni of Monaco, who was expected to be the cornerstone of the French defensive line. L’Équipe reported that nine of the 53 Algerians then playing in France had disappeared and added that “the French team remains, even if the word ‘France’ takes on a more narrow meaning.” Missing the skill and dexterity of the Algerians, France would be handed a 5-2 drubbing by eventual champions Brazil in the semi-finals of the World Cup.
It would later be found that the Algerians had secretly left France and travelled to Tunisia to form the first Algerian national team. More Algerians would subsequently leave France secretly to form a full 30-man squad with Mohamed Boumezrag as player-coach. Besides Mekhloufi and Zitouni, the squad boasted of proven stalwarts like Said Brahimi of Toulouse, Mohamed Maouche of Stade de Reims, Abdelhamid Kermali of Olympique Lyonnais, Abderrahman Ibrir of Olympique de Marseille, and Abdelaziz Ben Tifour of Monaco.
The massacre at Sétif – football and politics in colonial Algeria
With the establishment of FC Musulman de Mascara in 1910, the first indigenous Islamic football club in Algeria, politics and football became instrinsically linked in the country which had been a French colony for a hundred years. With political activity heavily monitored and regulated, the stadium became the only place where the Algerians could express their anti-colonial feelings openly and soon the Native Affairs unit started investigating clubs linked with political organisations and factions. By the 1930s, packed stadiums had started to become venues for speeches by pro-independence leaders.
On 8 May 1945, the day the Second World War formally ended in Europe, thousands of protesters gathered in the market-town of Sétif in north-east Algeria. In the demonstration, the previously pacifist Ferhat Abbas called for immediate and complete independence for Algeria. Tensions mounted and the local French police opened fire on the demonstrators. Riots in the town were followed by attacks on French settlers in the neighbouring countryside which in turn was followed by widespread reprisals by French vigilante groups and government forces. Around 35000 Algerians died in the Sétif and Guelma massacre. The event would change the lives of thousands of Algerians. Among them, a 10-year old boy who then lived in Sétif – Rachid Mekhloufi.
Tensions which had been brewing for quite some time finally spilled over and the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) was founded less than a decade later. On 4 February 1957, Sporting Club Universitaire d’El Biar, an amateur team supported by pro-independence Algerian settlers, caused a major upset after they beat European Cup finalists Stade de Reims. A few days later, during a match against Racing Universitaire Algérois, bombs went off in the stands and killed eight people. El Biar would bow out to Lille in the quarter-finals of the Coupe de France but the final match in the tournament would be witness to FLN member Mohammed Ben Sadok’s assassination of anti-independence deputy Ali Chekkal, as he watched the game.
“Footballers of the Revolution”
In September 1954, a couple of months before the birth of the FLN, an earthquake devastated the city of Chlef (then called Orléansville), two hundred kilometers west of Algiers. On a suggestion floated by L’Equipe, the French Football Federation decided to organize a match between a “Metropolitan” team made up of Frenchmen and a “North African” team, called the Afrique du Nord (AFN), comprising players of North African origin playing in France at the time. Olympique de Marseille’s Moroccan great Larbi Ben Barek, and French internationals of Algerian descent, Mustapha Zitouni and Adelaziz Ben Tifour were the star attractions of the African side. The proceeds from the match would be given to help the displaced and rebuild the Algerian city.
Much to the dismay of readers of right-wing publication Le Figaro, which had predicted a resounding “French” victory, the AFN team stunned a packed Parc des Princes in Paris and won the match 3-2. Just 15 days after this historic triumph that changed racial perceptions about the supposed inferiority of the colonized peoples, the FLN declared an armed insurrection against France, sparking off one of the bloodiest wars of independence – one that would spread from the sands of Algeria to the streets of Paris itself.
Three years later a football team wearing the green and white of Algeria represented the still-colonised nation at the 1957 World Youth Festival at Moscow. Among the dignitaries was Mohamed Boumezrag, a former footballer and leader of a section of the FLN based in metropolitan France. On his return from Moscow, he pitched the idea of having a football team whose players would serve as ambassadors of the revolution. His idea was approved of by the FLN leadership and together with Mokhtar Arribi, the trainer of Avignon, Abdelaziz Ben Tifour and Mohamed Maouche (who had also been picked for the 40-man pre-selection French squad for the 1958 World Cup), Boumezrag started recruiting players from Algerian descent to his squad. On April 13 1958, the Équipe du FLN de Football or the “FLN Football Team” was formally formed in Tunisia, the seat of the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic.
The French Football Federation appealed to FIFA which announced that any team that played the Algerians would automatically be disqualified from the upcoming World Cup. Although the French squad participating in the World Cup remembered their Algerian compatriots fondly and even sent Mekhloufi and Zitouni a postcard from Sweden wishing them luck, the management did not take kindly to them. The French government managed to arrest several other Algerian footballers who attempted to escape France. Mekhloufi and some others who were members of the French military reserves, were sentenced in absentia to 10 years of imprisonment.
“The World Cup, of course, I thought of it. But it was nothing compared to the independence of my country,” Mekhloufi later said. Two more groups of players would join the squad in 1959 and 1960 respectively.
Le onze de l’indépendance
Despite French protestations, le onze de l’indépendance or the “eleven of independence” took the field against a number of international opponents. The FLN team would spend the next four years touring north Africa and the middle-east, the states of the communist bloc, and the newly independent countries of south-east Asia.
Their first match was against the Tunisian national team, one of the finalists of the 1957 Pan-Arab Games in Beirut. Much to everyone’s surprise the Algerians brushed them aside 8-0. In Vietnam President Ho Chi Minh himself received the team when they arrived to tour the country. In China, they met Chou En-Lai, the then-Prime Minister of the People’s Republic. In Eastern Europe, they orchestrated impressive victories against some of the then-European heavyweights – 6-1 against Yugoslavia, 6-2 against Hungary, and 6-0 against the USSR.
However, their most important match was possibly a game against Iraq that they played in February 1959. It was the first time the prospective flag of an independent Algeria was hoisted and their national anthem “Kassaman” was sung before kick-off. The ambassador of France who had been invited to watch hastily left the stadium in protest. Although Algeria beat Iraq 3-0, the Iraqis, delirious with joy, stormed the pitch after the final whistle. “Congratulations to those who succeeded by the means of sports to tarnish the image of colonial France”, they said.
Between 1958 and 1962 the FLN team would play a total of 91 matches and would be unbeaten in 78 of those games (winning 65 of them). What began as a shot in the dark on the part of the FLN to spread the idea of an independent Algeria became a propaganda coup. Ferhat Abbas would later say that the team fast-forwarded the revolution by ten years.
“With the passing of time, I can say that none among us have regrets. We were militants, we were revolutionaries. I fought for independence. They were beautiful years”, Mohamed Maouche would later recall fondly.
The later years
On March 19 1962, the De Gaulle government signed the Evian Accords granting complete independence to Algeria. The new socialist republic of Algeria formed an official team to represent the country and the FLN team was disbanded. 13 of the squad went back to France to resume their domestic careers.
Amidst the fallout between the citizens of the two countries in the aftermath of 130 years of colonization and violence, football proved to be a realm where bridges for reconciliation were successfully built. The fans of the French clubs, instead of vilifying the Algerians, cheered and applauded them on their return. Reports speak of an awed silence in the stadium when Mekhloufi first touched the ball after his return to Saint-Étienne, followed by rapturous applause.
Besides playing for the newly-formed Algerian national team with some of his FLN teammates, Mekhloufi would power Saint-Étienne to their second league title in 1964 as well as two more championships in 1967 and 1968. Mekhloufi, by then the captain of Saint-Étienne played his final game in the 1968 Coupe de France final where his brace ensured a win against ASSE.
In 1964, Algeria played a friendly against West Germany which they won 2-0, foreshadowing a historic game that would take place 18 years later in Spain. With Mekhloufi as head coach, Algeria qualified for their first World Cup in 1982. They would register a miraculous 2-1 win in their opening game against European Champions West Germany and also beat Chile 3-2.
However, a deliberate collusion between Austria and West Germany in the last group game ensured that Algeria did not progress from the group stages. In the match that would come to be known as the “Shame of Gijón”, the players of both sides were booed by their own fans and chants of “Algeria! Algeria!” rang out. Outside the stadium, outraged fans burnt their national flags in protest. While German commentator Eberhard Stanjek refused to comment on the game after a point, Austrian commentator Robert Seeger actually requested his viewers to turn off their television sets. El Comercio, a local daily of Gijón printed the match report in the crime section. To this day in Algeria, the match is referred to as the Anschluss.
Algeria won its first title in the 1971 Mediterranean Games and in 1990 won the African Cup of Nations. Eight years later in 1998, a 26-year old play-maker wearing the French colours dazzled the world and powered France to the World Cup final. At the Stade de France in Paris, his first half brace ensured that France beat favourites Brazil to win their first World Cup. Son of Algerian immigrants, his name is Zinedine Zidane.