Supporter generated poster '11 players, with the soul of the 1 million martyrs'
The World Cup is entering its final stages. In the words of one British journalist ‘the natural order of things’ has been restored and the final fight for the golden trophy is on. The world’s eyes are riveted on the big shots: Germany, Holland, France, Brazil and Argentina.
There has however been another story in this Cup, one that has amazed and excited many around the world, and is a reminder of the powerful nature of the beautiful game. The Algerian national team, the Fennecs, as the last African team in the final round, let us dream of a different kind of cup by keeping the mighty German Mannschaft in check until extra time. Even after going 2-0 down, they made it possible for people to keep dreaming right up to the final whistle.
On the surface, this was a classic underdog story: a historically peripheral football nation fights its way through the group stages, achieves a higher ranking than ever before, and defends itself tenaciously against one of the greats before bowing out with its head held high. But there is something special about the Algerian football team.
First of all, its formation was a political stunt organized by the FLN in 1958. The FLN (National Liberation Front), founded in 1954, was the leading Algerian organization fighting for independence against the French occupation. The FLN called on Algerian players to stop playing for France and join the struggle for independence in the best way they could: on a football pitch. The team was called FLN and its original jerseys were emblazoned with those letters all the way through the revolutionary struggle for independence. They travelled around the world, carrying those letters, the FLN’s hymn, and the message of anti-colonial struggle. When Polish officials were not prepared to let them sing the FLN anthem, the players refused to step onto the pitch until the officials changed their minds. It was only after independence that the FLN team was dissolved and the Algerian national team was born.
Another direct link between this team and the struggle for freedom is the Algerian chant: “One, Two, Three – Viva l’Algerie.” This chant too was born in the revolution against French rule. In an attempt to increase international awareness and solidarity, the FLN leadership encouraged its members to chant in English. The slogan they settled on was “We Want to Be Free – Viva l’Algerie.” Over the years, the slogan morphed, first into “Want to Free – Viva l’Algerie”, then to “One, Two, Three – Viva l’Algerie”. So when Algerians supported the FLN team and then the Algerian one, they connected the game directly to their heroic resistance to France.
The politics of the Fennecs and its supporters, however, did not stop in 1962, with the declaration of independence. Every time the World Cup’s cameras zoomed in onto the crowds of Algerian supporters, Palestinian flags and scarves were being shaken in the air with the same passion as the Algerian ones. After the 1-1 draw against Russia, which sent the Fennecs into the final 16, Algeria’s number 10 – Sofiane Feghouli tweeted out a message dedicating their efforts to the rest of the Arab world, and to the Palestinian people in particular. Anybody fortunate enough to have been in Trafalgar square that same night, will have been moved by thousands of Algerian fans singing “Falesteen Shouhada”, demonstrating their solidarity even at the moment of highest joy. The solidarity has now gone further. Indeed, the players have announced that they are donating their World Cup bonuses - amounting to about nine million dollars - to the people of Gaza. When asked why, the Algerian striker Islam Slimani simply answered: “They need it more than us.” As the crowds celebrated the return of the team in Algeria, once again Palestine took centre stage on the players’ bus.
Every victory, or draw for that matter, of the Fennecs was followed by large celebrations in the streets of Algeria and Europe. In Europe these celebrations have their own additional political importance. The growing tide of Islamophobic attacks from racist and fascist groups, and Islamophobic legislation driven by politicians, have singled out and victimized Muslims across Europe. In countries such as France, Belgium, and Holland, communities from the Maghreb have been the prime targets of these attacks. Large crowds celebrating with flags and chants in the streets therefore have an inherently political character. Many non-Algerians joined in the celebrations for exactly the same reason. In France, racist groups made this political link too. In Lyon they marched, singing the Marseillaise and chanting for Algerians to “go back to Algeria” with a banner declaring: “This is Lyon, not Algeria”. Having made a geographic discovery, these boneheads seemed excited to share it with the rest of the world.
In Algeria however, the political consequences for the repressive regime of president Abdelaziz Bouteflika and the Algerian military is less clear. It could either reinforce a sense of national pride and unity behind the figures of the regime, or do exactly the opposite. Those brave youth who have on regular intervals challenged the inequality and lack of social justice in the streets of Algeria, might find inspiration in the glory of their team, its political expressions of solidarity with the Arab world, and its heroic militant past. Only time, and the people of Algeria, can answer this question in practice.
What is certain, however, is that the Algerian team has brought a ray of sunshine to a World Cup marred by controversy. Far from distracting world attention from the intense efforts of the Brazilian government to use this spectacle as a way to gentrify the favelas around the stadiums, or overshadowing the Brazilian people’s struggle for social justice, the Fennecs were, for the duration of four fantastic matches, a political focus for internationalism and resistance in the midst of FIFA’s official, sanitized and sterile environment. This feeling was brilliantly captured by one fan in Brazil last week. One, two, three: Viva l’Algerie!