Football has long proven to be more than just a game. National teams have unified entire populations. Take Brazil, for instance. In the early 20th century, it was a divided country with various takes on national identity. It wasn’t until they came together and won the 1958 World Cup that the nation truly started to move towards unification. It was in part thanks to football; that one, giant unifier that everyone in Brazil – rich, poor, black, white – could unite behind and identify as truly Brazilian. Now it’s seamlessly woven into their culture. You can’t think about Brazil without thinking of their legacy in football.
Algeria can relate to that, just on a different scale. While national teams were competing post-war, Algeria weren’t. That’s because there was no Algeria yet. Since the 1830s, the country had been ruled by France, becoming an important colony throughout its 130-year-long occupation that, as early as the 1850s, the majority of the population in ancient cities like Algiers and Oran were European, rather than native North African.
It wasn’t until 1945 that Algeria started to aggressively push for independence. All the while, France had been benefitting from the footballing skills of the population they refused to grant freedom to. It was something that had been going on for decades, throughout the colonisation, and just seemed to be the way things were.
That was until Mohamed Boumezrag decided that his decade spent playing professionally in France paled in comparison to aiding his country’s push for freedom. Knowing the political potential within the sport itself, Boumezrag coordinated with the head of the Algerian National Liberation Front to begin recruiting for what would become known as the Liberation Front’s own national football team, or the Équipe FLN. There were numerous Algerian players scattered throughout France, two of whom, Mustapha Zitouni and Rachid Mekloufi, were even expected to start for Les Bleus at the 1958 World Cup.
Boumezrag was asking them, as well as the rest of the Algerian footballers playing in Ligue 1, to give up their dreams and saddle up on the horse of rebellion, where their professional careers would surely be forfeit. In the process, they would form their own national team to appeal to the world through football – and even better, they would, in the eyes of much of the population, rebel against France.
On the night of 4 April 1958, just two months before the start of the World Cup that would unify Brazil, 12 Algerian players disappeared from France. They left behind teammates, friends, families and professional careers in the name of their national identity. The plan was to reconvene in Tunisia, making it quite the perilous journey. If any hint of what they were doing reached the authorities, the entire effort would collapse. France international Rachid Mekhloufi, for instance, was carrying out his military duty in the European nation at the time. To leave could be construed as deserting – and he wasn’t the only one in that predicament.
While Mekhloufi and most of the players would make it, Hassen Chabri was apprehended and imprisoned for a year. But the fight went on. In Tunis, the team began to plan their matches, which they hoped would appeal to international eyes and win them supporters in their push for independence.
In France, however, the goal of upsetting the colonial masters had been reached, and FIFA was immediately sought out to lay down the law. France pushed – unsuccessfully – for punishments to be doled out to any nation that faced the newly-formed renegade side and sentenced all outcasts who’d been serving in the military to 10 years in prison for defection. None of those sentences would ever be carried out because the Équipe FLN squad was too busy touring Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia, building support through their whimsical displays of footballing prowess.
For four years, they would play over 100 matches against teams ranging as far east as China. Support for Algeria was widespread, and exhibition matches were in high demand. For Équipe FLN, though, there was only one requirement for opponents wishing to face their outlawed squad. The hosts, from North Vietnam to Yugoslavia, had to play the Algerian national anthem and display the Algerian flag, essentially acknowledging them as a nation. This requirement was always met. It was a massive accomplishment; coupled with their success on the pitch, they continued to raise the spirit of independence.
None of the matches counted for anything more than pride. After all, FIFA did not recognise Algeria as a nation because, in a sense, it wasn’t. Eventually, though, in 1962, independence was achieved. The Evian Accords were signed and with it, those 10-year prison sentences for desertion were erased.
While the political tension between the two nations remained palpable, the footballing one didn’t. Nearly all of the Algerian players who had fled in 1958 returned to play for their former clubs, but no punishments were incurred, nor prison sentences carried out. Mekhloufi returned to Saint-Étienne and continued right where he had left off, leading them to a Coupe de France in 1968 and receiving his medal personally from French President Charles de Gaulle.
While much appeared to be forgiven, all was not forgotten. Even today, the connection between the Algerian and French people blurs the lines of international boundaries, and the dispersal of Algerian fans in France has led to several instances of violence spurred on by Algerian national team success.
From a player’s perspective, while there are examples of African players having to choose between their adopted European country or their country of birth, no two nations have quite the long and ongoing history that France and Algeria share. In 2014, for instance, two-thirds of the Algerian national team had been born in France. This came about, in part, as a result of the Algerian Civil War in the early 1990s that displaced hundreds of thousands of Algerians to France in what became known as the ‘Lost Generation’ of Algeria and the dark ages of their national team.
Of course, a mere seven years after the conflict, Zinedine Zidane – of Algerian descent – led France to the World Cup. Zidane had played for France at youth level, but the rules were different then. Unlike current regulations, that youth level representation tied him to France, meaning that had FIFA had the rules then they have now, then arguably the greatest player in French international history would never have worn the tricolor.
The success that Zidane enjoyed, or more specifically where he had accomplished it, prompted Algeria to do some lobbying to FIFA of their own, much like France had done decades earlier. Algeria’s aim, however, was to alter FIFA’s eligibility stipulations, which was accomplished in 2004. A further success was achieved in 2009 when a rule was put in place stipulating that so long as a player has not played a competitive fixture with a national team, they have no obligation to that nation.
Today, players such as Karim Benzema, Samir Nasri, Nabil Fekir and others choose to represent France in what has unfortunately turned into a divide of talent. The best players play for France, while the rest play for Algeria, with a few exceptions. It’s quite the contrast from when the best of the best abandoned France to form an Algerian team that helped push for independence. Whatever the case, the fact that they now have a choice is thanks in part to the brevity of Équipe FLN and the fight for freedom that they waged on the pitch.
By Josh Sippie