Sports has often served as a significant outlet for nationalistic aggression. Instances like the 1969 ‘Football War’ between Honduras and El Salvador, and the 2009 Egypt-Algeria World Cup dispute illustrate how football can be weaponised, or used to illustrate the worst in our respective societies.
However, it has also resulted in the harbouring of mutual respect and peace between countries – a commonality between even the most bitter of rivals. Nelson Mandela famously used international sports to unify South Africa in the 1990s after the collapse of the apartheid regime.
Football and sport in general often mirrors and amplifies the society it operates within it. And no more famously was this illustrated than in 1958 when the Algerian War for Independence famously used the green pitch as a catalyst to overthrow the imperialist regime of the French.
The cross-pollination of Algerian and French cultures first started when the North African country was colonised by the French back in the 18th century under Napoleon Bonaparte. Subsequent conquests over the African state further cemented the stronghold of the French which lasted until 1962.
Four years prior, in 1958, the independence struggle of Algeria took a new direction, and reshaped the way football was viewed across the globe. Two marquee French players – Mustapha Zitouni and Rachid Mekloufi – were part of the French Squad who were tipped to win the coveted Jules Rimet trophy. As it turned out, France had a very good competition, losing only in the semifinals to eventual winners, Brazil.
The real story however, started two months before the start of the tournament. Zitouni and Mekloufi along with eight other French-Algerian players smuggled away to Tunisia via Switzerland to play for the Équipe du FLN de football (The FLN football team). The FLN was an independence struggle voiced through the players and fans whose chests beamed with pride heaing their National Anthem being played before each game.
Independent Algeria’s first President, Ahmed Ben Bella and French Algerian philosopher Albert Camus were part of the FLN movement which gathered voice with each passing day. Football was finally reaching unchartered territories.
Prior to making waves on the pitch, the FLN had already become a powerful social and political movement – organizing protests against the French colonists residing in Algeria. These protests, which had sometimes descended into violence meant the voice of Algeria had finally reached the streets of Paris.
The FLN finally announced itself on the biggest stage of all when it was confirmed that Zitouni and Mekloufi would indeed play for the FLN. The FLN went on to play exhibition matches all around the world.
They played a vast chunk of their games in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, with the latter supporting the FLN in their quest to wipe out the common enemy. Over the course of the next four years the FLN even played as far as Vietnam and China. The Algerian freedom movement found a safe haven in these countries where Western European concepts of capitalism and liberalism were viewed with sceptical Communist eyes.
When independence was finally won in 1962, most of the players returned to play for their French clubs. In an odd turn of events, Mekloufi scored two goals in the 1968 French Cup final leading Saint Etienne to the title. Presenting Mekhloufi with his winners’ medal, de Gaulle told him ‘La France c’est vous’ – ‘France, is you’.
Fast forward to 50 years. The Algerian football team comprises of 2/3rds of players born in France. The Algerian Football Federation has successfully lobbied to get FIFA to change its eligibility rules with regard to under-21 players holding dual nationality.
In 2004 Antar Yahia became the first French-born Algerian who switched from Les Blues to the Green and White of Algeria. He would go on to captain Algeria in subsequent matches.
In 2009, another landmark resolution was passed with respect to the eligibility criteria for players. FIFA members voted stating that as long as a player hadn’t played a competitive game for a senior squad, they could switch eligibility to their other nationalities.
This has resulted in a potential goldmine for Algerian football, as they scout the best players from France, asking them to play for them.
The ‘Desert Foxe’s have long emerged from the shadows of their imperialist rulers, and are now luring the French-Algerian prodigies to their land of origin. No wonder that in 2010 Le Monde famously called Algeria “The other French team”.