Before 2019, the previous (and only) time Algeria had won a major international tournament was also at the Africa Cup in 1990—a victory followed by a decade of civil unrest that ended with the election of president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 1999. The 2019 football victory came on the heels of the revolution ousting Bouteflika after nearly 20 years in power. Algeria, it seemed, had come full circle.
After winning the FIFA Arab Cup in 2021, however, Algeria lost in the initial round of the 2021 Africa cup of Nations and later failed to qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Over the same period of swinging fortunes for Algeria’s national football team, the country has seen significant social and political upheaval. The months-long Hirak protests in 2019 and the resignation of Bouteflika and his administration, as well as the arrest of several key figures within his circle, have been followed by a period of mounting tensions between Algeria and Morocco over normalization with Israel.
The COVID-19 pandemic restrictions and, more recently, the economic and political consequences of the war in Ukraine have placed additional strains on Algerians and impacted the broader geopolitical situation in the region. Algerian football mirrors these tensions and transformations, and the national team’s performance on various international stages has provided a key site where social and identity politics have played out.
Football Between the “Black Decade” and the Charter for Reconciliation
When Algeria, as the host nation, defeated Nigeria in the 1990 Africa Cup of Nations, the moment marked the pinnacle of the so-called “golden generation” in Algerian football. Shortly after the 1990 victory, the country entered the bloodiest era in its history since the seven years of armed struggle for independence from France between 1954 and 1962. During the “black decade” of the 1990s, Algerians fought one another. Armed groups, including those sympathetic to the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), faced off against the government backed by the army and the secular coalition. The war affected all spheres of society, including sports.
Algeria, which had qualified for both World Cups in the 1980s, did not qualify for the tournament again until 2010. They edged out rival Egypt to make the tournament in South Africa in a tight playoff match that represented an important moment for the domestic leadership in both countries, particularly for former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who was preparing his son to inherit the presidency. The match was held on November 18, 2009, on ostensibly neutral grounds at the Um Darman stadium in Sudan. Both governments mobilized their fans, among them Egyptian artists and the two sons of Mubarak. In a large operation, the Algerian military deployed airplanes to transport thousands of Algerian fans from different parts of the country to the match. These flights were provided free of charge and included food and tents.
For Algerians, the win came at an equally crucial time. The qualification for the 2010 FIFA World Cup happened in the context of President Bouteflika’s Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation, which put an end to a decade of violence in Algeria. The charter, approved in a referendum on September 29, 2005, stipulated the staying of prosecution cases and the commuting of sentences for anyone who had committed an act of violence between 1992 and 2006 and had turned themselves in to authorities before the end of August 2006, excluding insurgent groups who committed acts of mass murder or rape.
Furthermore, the charter legislated compensation for the victims of the national tragedy, thereby attempting to turn the proverbial page on the prior decade of violence. The raucous celebrations across Algeria and the diaspora at the national team’s victory over Egypt to qualify for the World Cup after 24 years of absence symbolically closed a decade of political violence, unifying Algerians around their country and their flag. In their celebrations, Algerians reclaimed with their rejoicing bodies the very public spaces that had been the scenes of car bombs and targeted assassinations in the 1990s.
The fact that the 2010 tournament was the first World Cup on the African continent and took place in the land of Nelson Mandela also held political significance for Algerians. Both countries are synonymous with African struggles for independence from occupation and oppression, and their anti-colonial movements intersected. A point of pride among Algerians, Mandela secretly trained with the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN). While on a 1961 visit to an FLN military camp in Oujda, Morocco, he proclaimed that “the situation in Algeria was the closest model to our own in that the rebels faced a large white settler community that ruled the indigenous majority.” Both countries similarly supported Western Sahara’s self-determination from Spanish and later Moroccan rule, with formal diplomatic relations established between South Africa and Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 2004.
The 2010s also proved a favorable time for Algerian football in terms of securing investment. With the price of oil surging in the international markets, the Algerian government had more money to invest. Football clubs also garnered private sponsorships, particularly from regional telecommunication operators, Djezzy, then under Egyptian ownership, and the Qatari-owned Nedjma, which was later rebranded as Oreedoo. These companies understood the significance of football in their branding, even as they saw the high passions and emotions that surround the sport as a risk, which could lead to violence. The money funneled into national football helped to attract players from the Algerian diaspora playing in European leagues, even drawing players who had trained with the youth squads of European national teams.
Alongside these efforts, entrepreneurial brothers Kheireddine and Hassen Zetchi established the Paradou Athletic Club academy in 2007. They followed the model of other successful football academies in Africa, like the Ivory Coast’s ASEC Mimosas academy that had produced a golden generation of Ivorian football players in the early 2000s. Starting around 2015, the few domestic players who were selected to play for the Algerian national team, otherwise dominated by players from the Algerian diaspora in Europe (and France in particular), were all graduates from Paradou AC academy. Selection for the national team in turn served as an opportunity for these players to gain international visibility and sign professional contracts in more prestigious and remunerative leagues, particularly in Tunisia, the Arabian Peninsula, Turkey, France and Germany.
The 2019 Africa Cup of Nations and the Fall of Bouteflika
Algeria’s victory at the Africa Cup of Nations in July 2019 coincided with a period of domestic turmoil and transition. Just a few months prior, on April 2, President Bouteflika had been forced to resign after almost 20 years as president, following mass protests against his nomination for a fifth term in office.
The protest movement, known as the Hirak, included the participation of different strata of Algerian society, both men and women, young and old, from all regions. In response, the Algerian army under chief of staff General Ahmed Gaid Salah took charge, much as they had in 1991 after the FIS-won election, ostensibly to manage the transition period and the re-election of a new president and parliament. Conceding to Hirak demands, the army jailed and put on trial many from Bouteflika’s close circle (popularly known as al-‘isaba, “the gang”), a group that included his brother and chief advisor, Said Bouteflika, as well as influential members of the government, security forces and business oligarchies.
“Forgive me for existing, forgive my feelings. Give me back my freedom I ask you nicely. Freedom, freedom, is to be found in our hearts. The freedom, the freedom, we are not afraid of it. They thought we were dead, they said goodbye. They thought we were afraid of the dark past [a reference to the civil war in the 1990s].”
The National soccer team’s victory in the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations offered an occasion to celebrate the end of Bouteflika’s era and the purge of al-‘isaba (the gang). For example, the Deputy Minister of National Defense, Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaïd Salah, called the football victory “a strong and clear response to the band [referring to the previous regime] and its acolytes and all those who dare to doubt the unity of this people.”
The period of celebration was short-lived. The election of President Abdelmadjid Tebboune and a new parliament drew fewer than 40 percent of voters, among the lowest turnout ever recorded in an Algerian election. The Hirak movement ended due to the COVID-19 outbreak and the mounting coercive measures by the new decision makers who believed they had conceded enough to protestors. The protests, however, reopened important debates over the nature and future of Algeria’s political system.
Ongoing public debates include the freedom of the press, the democratic openness of civil society and the freedom to form political parties, the politics of language (the relative status of Arabic, French and Tamazight, alongside the increasing influence of English), questions of identity and Amazigh culture and the future political role of the military.
The 2021 Arab Cup
The 2021 Arab Cup, held in Qatar, was the first Arab Cup to be overseen by FIFA, which had been reluctant to endorse the tournament in the past. The tournament provided FIFA with an opportunity to test Qatar’s readiness and its newly built stadiums for hosting the 2022 World Cup finals. National teams from North Africa, Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia dominated the tournament, which took on a life of its own on social media. Debates over questions of identity and leadership raged on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube as online commentators crafted historical and political narratives while watching the game.
These debates were fueled by celebrity commentators on the Qatari-owned beIN Sports network, specifically the Tunisian anchor, Issam Chaouali, and the Algerian anchor, Hafid Derradji. Both are notorious for their commenting style, mixing football with history and geopolitics. In a given match, they can be heard reflecting on anything from team tactics on the pitch, to the private lives of football superstars, to the current problems in the region and the Palestinian struggle, to historical figures of Arab nationalism like Habib Bourguiba, Houari Boumediene and Gamal Abdul Nasser, to the Islamic golden ages in Andalusia—the last, during Spanish La Liga matches.
The quarter-final match between Algeria and Morocco represented a highlight of the 2021 competition. This game occurred in the context of a political crisis between the two countries whose borders have been closed since 1994, following a bombing of a tourist hotel in Marrakech that Morocco blamed on the Algerian security services. In the buildup to the match, tensions had been mounting over the normalization of relations between Morocco and Israel under the framework of the Abraham Accords and Morocco’s declaration of support for self-determination in the Kabylia region in Algeria (a retaliation for Algeria’s long-standing support for an independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in the Western Sahara). Algeria cut diplomatic ties with Morocco on August 24, 2021, after it was revealed that Morocco had used the Israeli Pegasus spyware to monitor the mobile phones of over 6,000 Algerians, including government officials and military personnel.
Concerned about the tensions between the two countries and a potential spillover onto the football grounds, the organizing committee of the Arab Cup separated supporters of Algeria and Morocco—most of them residents of Qatar—into opposite sides of the stadium. The contest, however, took place mainly on the pitch. Algeria beat Morocco to progress to the semi-final against host country Qatar and proceeded to win the title against Tunisia.
The massive interest the competition generated surprised even FIFA. Football analysts in the region started to debate the relevance of other regional tournaments, seeing in this new version of the Arab Cup—under the patronage of FIFA—an opportunity to raise football’s stature in Arab countries and to attract more public and private funds.
The 2022 World Cup and the “New Algeria”
As with the 2019 Africa Cup trophy, the Arab Cup was celebrated with a street parade featuring the national football team in Algiers. The parade ended at the presidential palace. The traditional photograph with the president was taken in the presence of the new army chief of staff, General Saïd Chengriha. The occasion served to reiterate the discourse of al-jaza‘ir al-jadida (the new Algeria) as a break with the Bouteflika era.This new era was to be characterized by sporting (particularly football) victories, a modern, strong and united army and renewed diplomatic engagement on the international scene under Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra, himself a holdover from the Bouteflika era, having served between 2013 and 2017.
The Algerian national football team is currently managed by Algerian-French trainer Djamel Belmadi, who was appointed on August 2, 2018. Belmadi, a former player for global footballing giants Olympique de Marseille and Manchester City, appeared in 20 international fixtures for the Algerian team. He finished his professional career in Qatar, where he began his coaching career with clubs in the Qatari league and the Qatari national team. As Algeria’s head coach, Belmadi oversaw the 2019 Africa Cup and 2021 Arab Cup victories, as well as a record of 35 undefeated matches. Algerian supporters have nicknamed him the “Minister of Happiness,” pointing to football’s role in providing emotional relief amid the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing internal tensions.
The momentum of the Algerian national team was halted in the 2021 African Cup of Nations, held in early 2022 in Cameroon, when they were eliminated in the tournament’s first round. The greater blow, however, came in March of 2022, when Algeria missed out on qualifying for the World Cup in a devastating home turf match that saw Cameroon score the winning goal in minute 124—the last minute of extra time. The Algerian National Federation formally filed complaints against the Gambian referee for being biased in favor of Cameroon, but Algeria will not be among the five African nations competing in Qatar.
Adding to the injury, rivaling national team Morocco qualified for the tournament under the management of Bosnian Vahid Halilhodžić, who had coached the Algerian national team during the 2014 World Cup—the first and only time they made it to the round 16. Morocco’s qualification and Algeria’s exclusion have ignited social media platforms. Algerian supporters accused the African Football Confederation of being under the influence of Fouzi Lakjaa, president of the Royal Moroccan Football Federation and vice president of the African Football Federation and member of FIFA. They allege he deliberately selected the referee who was partial to Cameroon for the qualifying match.
Like everywhere, football represents more than just a sport in Algeria. It involves a complex social phenomenon that reflects tense power relations, regional rivalries and competing narratives over Algeria’s history and future. Over the past decade, football has been a site for political and social contestations where Algerians express their discontent and challenge official political discourse. Football fans and their chanting played an important role during the Hirak protests, when other forums for political expression were closed and formal political parties were in crisis or delegitimized. The new political deciders who have taken over from Bouteflika continue to view football, the most popular and emotionally significant sport in Algeria, as a political tool to foster Algerian unity in the face of external adversity, using the sport to project a new, ostensibly progressive Algeria. From the perspective of the fans, football continues to be a privileged space for contestation and protest against symbols of power in Algeria.
[Mahfoud Amara is Associate Professor of Sport Management and Social Sciences in the College of Education, Qatar University.]
 Carl Rommel, Egypt’s Football Revolution: Emotion, Masculinity, and Uneasy Politics (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2021).
 Abdeldjalil Larbi Youcef, “The Algerian Army Made Me a Man,” Transition 116 (2014), p. 67–79.
 Mahfoud Amara, “Football, the New Battlefield of Business in Algeria: Djezzy and Nedjma …RANA MĀK YA AL-KHDRA,” The Journal of North African Studies 16/3 (2011).
 “La position des Algériens lors de la CAN-2019 une ‘réponse forte à la bande,’” Algerian Press Service, July 22, 2019.
 Areeb Ullah, “Qatar World Cup 2022: Adidas admits it used Morocco’s zellige design on Algeria top,” Middle East Eye, October 15, 2022.