A Tale of Two TitansAlgeria has produced two world-renown soccer players, men so famous that today, long after they have retired, one need only utter their last names to produce instant recognition. Both originate from tiny towns just inland from Algeria's Mediterranean coastline. Both grew up in poverty and became among the all-time greats. And the careers of both came to an end with their heads smashing into the instruments of their destruction. The head of the elder of the two went crashing through the plexiglass rear window of a 1959 Facel-Vega HK-500 and onto the trunk, breaking his neck and killing him instantly in the French countryside. The head of the younger went crashing into the chest of a 6' 4" Italian center-back, causing the Italian to collapse to the ground as if struck a mortal blow and the referee to produce the footballer's death sentence, a red card, in what would be his final game as a professional player. The men are, of course, Camus and Zidane. But wait a minute, you say, aren't they French? And besides, what does Camus have to do with soccer?
- It's true that Camus is better-known as a Nobel Prize-winning writer than for his soccer skills. However, as a teenager, he played goalie for Racing Universitaire Algerios junior squad (in the above photo, he's the one in the scarf and floppy hat sitting in the front). By all accounts, he was quite good until a bout of tuberculosis at age 18 derailed all future sporting prospects. He is also forever linked to the game for his famous line: “Everything I know about morality and the obligations of men, I owe it to football.” (You can even buy a t-shirt with his name on the back and with the quote on the front here.) Alas, according to the Camus Society -- and they ought to know -- what he actually wrote said "sport" not "football" but that's been largely lost over time.
Zidane, of course, is best known for his on-field status as one of the all-time great midfielders, and not his writing -- despite his doubtlessly riveting post-1998 World Cup "as told to" instabook Le Roman d'une Victoire. If you've never seen him play, try and track down a copy of the strange documentary Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, which is basically a bunch of cameras tracking him throughout a Spanish league game, with a backing soundtrack by Mogwai. (Or you can just watch a pirated version one of which is linked to below.)
Nationality, Identity, and FIFAThe question of Camus and Zidane being Algerian or French isn't really debatable from a legal standpoint -- both men were/are French citizens. Camus was born in Algeria, and lived there until he was 24. However, during those years (1913-37), Algeria was a "department" of France -- a colony, but one with the status of a mainland jurisdiction, fully integrated into the French administrative system. That's why even though he he supported the Algerian nationalist movement, every thing you will ever read about Camus identifies him as French. Zidane was born in the exurbs of Marseille, and is thus indisputably French. His parents had immigrated from a small Berber village in the 1950s, and from all accounts, his home life was certainly culturally Algerian and Zidane certainly emphasized the supremacy of this part of his identity in interviews such as such this excellent 2004 profile: "Every day I think about where I come from and I am still proud to be who I am: first, a Kabyle from La Castellane, then an Algerian from Marseille, and then a Frenchman." (Off topic, but La Castellane appears to be one of those utterly grim planned exburbs of endless brutalist tower blocks, at least based on the photos accompanying the local gangster rap below.)
- This issue of national identity found new life in the aftermath of the civil war that tore Algeria apart from 1991-98 (or 2001 depending on how one defines the end of a civil war). Estimates are that perhaps 100,000-150,000 people were killed in the civil war, many in the most brutal massacres imaginable, and led to massive flight from the country during those years and the decade following. (As I recently discovered on a family trip, every other taxi driver in Montreal is an Algerian immigrant of that era.) Naturally, the country's sporting infrastructure fell into disarray, and the national soccer federation was faced with having to completely rebuild its program.Inspired by the results of Zidane's development within the French soccer academy system, the Algerian federation pursued a canny strategy of lobbying FIFA to change its eligibility rules with regards to youth (under 21) players holding dual nationality. And indeed, in 2004 the first player to switch his national eligibility under new FIFA rules was Antar Yahia, who played in French blue at the under-16 and under-18 national level, and then switched to Algerian green. Encouraged by the crop of talent thus obtained, the Algerian federation proposed even greater liberalization of eligibility, and in 2009, FIFA rules were opened so that as long as a player hadn't played a competitive game for a senior squad, they could switch eligibility. (For American fans, this is the change that made Jermaine Jones eligible to play for the US.)
- The effects of these efforts by the Algerian Federation have been remarkable. If you look at the current French national team, you'll find two internationally-known superstars of Algerian decent: Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri (pictured above, both were controversially left off France's 2010 World Cup squad). But more tellingly, if you look at the current Algerian national team roster currently listed on Wikipedia, 15 of the 23 players listed were born in France. A handful represented France at the youth level -- presumably reaching a point where (unlike Benzema and Nasri) it became clear they would never be good enough for the senior squad, and thus declared for Algeria instead.So, in a very real sense, recent Algerian teams can be thought of as a form of French junior varsity teams in terms of quality. And yet, in the last World Cup, they outperformed France. Algeria lost on a late goal to Slovenia after going down to 10 men, they battled England to a scoreless draw, and looked to be doing the same to the US until a late injury-time goal by Landon Donovan ended their World Cup. Meanwhile, the French team imploded on and off the field, and returned home coated in disgrace.
The UnderdogsAlgeria's two most noteworthy on-field moments in world football both involved underdog status and Rachid Mekloufi. The first of these takes us back to the special relationship with France. The 1958 World Cup took place almost exactly at the midpoint of Algeria's war for independence from France. That French team was quite strong (they would bow out in the semi-finals to the Pele-led Brazil team that would win the cup), and included two Algerians who were expected to start: Mustapha Zitouni and the aforementioned Rachid Mekloufi. However, two months before the competition, the two men, along with seven other French-based professionals, slipped over the border to Switzerland to form the core of Equipe FLN. This would be the "national" team of the FLN independence movement, representing the fight for liberation from France. They would go on to play something like 90 exhibition matches, mostly in the Middle East and Eastern Europe but as far afield as Vietnam and China over the course of four years. And when independence was won in 1962, most returned to play for their old French clubs. (For more on this interesting story, read this, and this, and in French, this.) In an odd twist, Mekloufi scored two goals in the 1968 French Cup final to lead his club to victory, resulting in President DeGaulle bestowing a medal on him.
- Algeria's second moment in the football spotlight took place at the 1982 World Cup. In the group stage, they were matched up against West Germany. The oddsmakers pegged them as 1000-1 underdogs, and their 2-1 defeat of the reigning European Champions remains ranked one of the ten biggest upsets in World Cup history. It also led to the possibility of their advancing to the next round at the expense of either Austria or West Germany, depending on the results of the final group games. This was cold-bloodedly avoided by the collusion between West Germany and Austria to rig the results of the final match in the group so that the two fraternal sides would advance, and Algeria would not. This low moment in World Cup history (known as "The Shame of Gijon") led to the alteration of the format into what we are all now familiar with, wherein the final group games of a tournament are played concurrently, to lessen the possibility of any such ungentlemanly arrangements. The coach of the '82 Algerian team was, of course, Rachid Mekloufi.
ReadingsAs you might have gathered from the above, Algeria's complicated relationship with France has continues to be important, some 51 years after the bloody and brutal war of independence. As such, it continues to dominate Western perceptions of the country and what little we know about Algeria is generally filtered through that particular lens. So it should come as no surprise that English-language nonfiction book about Algeria that has far and away the highest profile is Alistair Horne's 1977 study of the war of independence, A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962. If you recognize the title, it's probably because it had an unlikely second life in 2006 when everyone from President Bush (supposedly) to newly minted junior Lieutenants headed to Iraq was reading it for lessons on how not to run a counter-insurgency military operation in an Arab/Muslim country. I've never read it, but glowing reviews from outlets as varied as The Washington Post and the Marine Corps Gazette vouch for its readability. However, if you're looking for something softer and more personal, the collection An Algerian Childhood, may be more to your taste.There are plenty of options for translated Algerian fiction, but I gravitate toward the works of the pseudonymous Yasmina Khadra. An international bestseller for books such as The Swallows of Kabul and The Attack (neither set in Algeria), Khadra the pen name of former Algerian Army major Mohammed Moulessehoul. He fled Algeria to live in France in 2000, and in breaking news, just two weeks ago announced his intention to run for President of Algeria in 2014. His book Dead Man's Share is a prequel to his "Inspector Llob" crime trilogy, set in 1988, just prior to the start of the civil war. Like the best crime stories, it's also a social history that paints a vivid picture Algeria just before it imploded. In What the Day Owes the Night (which oddly, was not released in the US), he tackles the War of Independence, and how it ripped Algerian communities apart, through the eyes of a young boy in love, caught between the European world and the Algerian world.
- Strictly speaking, there was a third famous Algerian footballer (bottom row, far left, in the photo above), also with a complicated relationship to France. However, in the interests of time and space, I was unable to weave Ahmed Ben Bella into this article. Those who recognize the name will know him as a founding member of what became the FLN, a leader in the fight for independence, and Algeria's first president. Prior to that, he served in the French army with high distinction during World War II, earning a croix de guerre (roughly the equivalent of the US Bronze or Silver Star) and later a médaille military for bravery at Monte Cassino -- the latter awarded by DeGaulle. However, he also played central midfield quite well, and was offered a professional contract by Olympique de Marseille following the 1939/40 season.