The World Cup raises nationalist (make that nativist) sentiment to a fever pitch all around the Mediterranean Sea basin. But nowhere does the temperature run higher than in France and Algeria (as Martin Evans discusses at length in this article).
Football skirmishes between the two began long before the Algerian war for independence from France (1954-1962). The Mouloudia Club — with its Islamic-sounding name, green-for-Islam jerseys and headquarters in the casbah of colonial Algiers — was founded in 1921 as an expression of indigenous Algerian nationalism and a symbolic poke in the eye of the colonizer. The French colonial authorities spied on Mouloudia and the other Algerian teams that sprang up during the 1920s, fearful that the clubhouses would become centers of dissidence. The French even passed a regulation in 1928 requiring that every Algerian team have at least three European players, a number increased to five in 1935.
French teams in the Hexagone profited from Algerian football prowess back in the day. None other than Algeria’s first president, Ahmed Ben Bella, played during the 1939 season with Olympique de Marseille while stationed in the city during his military service. A fellow countryman, Abder Ibrir, played goalie six times for the French national team in 1949-1950.
Then the war of independence broke out. A 1958 World Cup qualifying match provided the backdrop for a dramatic demonstration of Algerian national pride: Nine Algerian players deserted the French League, demonstrating their solidarity with the independence struggle and sending a strong message that Algeria was not French. The footballers fled under cover to Tunisia and there formed the nucleus of the first independent Algerian national team. Two of them, Rachid Mekhloufi and Mustapha Zitouni, had been selected to play for the French in the 1958 World Cup finals in Sweden, where the French eventually lost to Brazil in the semifinals. Many French fans felt the outcome might have been different had the two talented Algerians stayed on squad.
After independence in 1962, the settler clubs were disbanded, Algerian clubs formed their own national championship tournament and the country joined FIFA. Mekhloufi returned to play with his old club in France, as did several other players. Algeria’s first World Cup appearance didn’t happen until 1982 in Spain. The Algerians qualified again for the World Cup in 1986 in Mexico. In 1990 Algeria won the Africa Nations Cup, but during the ensuing “black decade” the country was plunged into civil war and nothing much was heard about the Algerian team.
The center of gravity in Algerian and French sporting encounters shifted in the 1980s and 1990s to France, where the children of Algerian immigrants were coming of age at the same time as the right-wing anti-immigrant Front National party was making its presence felt. The most famous footballer of this second generation was Zinedine Zidane, born to Algerian parents in Marseille in 1972 and hailed as a national hero, as much by Algerians as by the French. He led the famous “Black, Blanc, Beur” (the latter term is used to describe French youth of North African origin) multicultural French national team to a World Cup victory in 1998 by scoring two of the three French goals against Brazil in the final match.
Zinedine’s team’s victory in 1998 may have been the high point of Franco-Algerian athletic relations. Things went downhill quickly afterwards. A match in France between the two nations in 2001 had to be called off after Algerian fans, most of them French-born, stormed the playing field. Zidane’s career ended in the 2006 World Cup final in Germany when he head-butted an Italian player and was thrown out of the match. Widespread rumors at the time claimed that the Italian was talking trash about Zidane’s sister. Whether true or not (the Italian player was hardly known for his politesse), the rumors had the effect among white French of reinforcing stereotypes of Arab patriarchal prickliness.
The low point for the French National team came at the South African World Cup of 2010, which saw the squad disgraced by a nasty exchange between player Nicolas Anelka, a French-born convert to Islam and son of Afro-Caribbean parents, and the white French coach, Raymond Domenech. Anelka was sent home as punishment. The rest of the team refused to practice before the next game as a sign of solidarity with Anelka and against the treatment meted out by the coach. They lost the game to Mexico 2-0. Much of the French nation, according to newspaper headlines in the days following, lived the dust-up as a wound to their national pride, a source of shame, a stain on national honor, an embarrassment, a moment of infamy and the like.
The French Football Federation (FFF) responded to the catastrophe of 2010 by launching a secret plan to limit to 30 percent the number of young black and Maghribi-descent players to be trained at the seven national youth training centers spread around France (Anelka is an alumnus of the most famous school located in Clairefontaine). The French national team coach at the time, Laurent Blanc, reportedly favored restricting the number of young players who didn’t share, “our culture, our history.” He went further and quoted the reigning world champion Spanish team as saying, “We don’t have a problem. We have no blacks.”
Ironically, it was Algeria that had created the “problem” the FFF coaches’ quotas were meant to solve: namely, how to see to it that France did not spend millions of euros to train young players who then went off to play for other national teams. Prior to 2003, footballers who had played for one country in an international match at the junior or senior levels could not play for another country. Algeria had protested and gotten the rule modified so that players with dual nationality who declared before the age of 21 their wish to play for another country could do so. Eligibility rules were tightened back up in 2004 in the wake of complaints that Qatar and Togo had naturalized a bunch of Brazilian players with no ancestral links to their countries of residence. The newer rules stated that the player either had to be born in the country he was playing for; had to have a biological parent or grandparent born in that country; or had to have lived for at least five years in the country in question. Algeria succeeded in getting age-limit restrictions scratched altogether at a FIFA congress in 2009. The Algerian squad immediately benefited from the rule change by welcoming onto their 2010 World Cup national team over a half dozen players of Algerian descent who had played on French national teams as youths.
The value to Algeria of the rule change is even greater at this year’s Mondiale: 15 of 23 footballers on the 2014 team are foreign-born. Switzerland is the team with the next highest number of foreign-born players with six of 23 (the US has five of 23), so it’s obvious that Algeria benefits greatly from the training provided by France to players with Algerian ancestry. The counter-argument states that the French national team makes its choices first. Those players who fear they will get no playing time or who have been passed over altogether are the ones who then play for Algeria. The big money and prestige come from playing for France, not Algeria. Look at Zidane, or so goes the argument, for proof that the French are the real winners in the scramble for players of Algerian descent.
A final kerfuffle popped up in late 2013. One of the French national team stars, a player of Algerian descent named Karim Benzema, went on record refusing to sing “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem. The Front National tried to make hay of the story, with its leader, Marine LePen, intoning gravely that Benzema should not be given a spot on the French team because of his lack of patriotism. Benzema protested that he would be honored to play for “Les Bleu,” and that his desire not to sing had nothing to do with sports. It came out in the aftermath that Zidane, too, never sang “La Marseillaise.” The mini-scandal began to die down when it was discovered that even the great French “white” football hero of the 1970s and 1980s, Michel Platini (of Italian ancestry), didn’t sing the national anthem. Apparently, a majority of present-day players don’t sing the song before games and probably never did.
The Front National released a final communiqué on June 12, 2014, three days before France’s Mondiale match against Honduras. The right-wingers’ sports commissar, Eric Domard, lectured the team about the need to recapture the hearts of the nation and to refrain from doing anything political. Know your place and stay in it, was the clear message from Domard. We don’t want “to resuscitate the grotesque myth of the ‘Black, Blanc, Beur’ team of 1998,” he warned. Curiously, most French fans would think they had died and gone to heaven if the 2014 national team performs anywhere near as well as the “grotesque” team of 1998.