Ahmed Ben Bella, the first president of Algeria, died in Algiers at the age of 93. The son a farmer and petty trader, Ben Bella lived a life of struggle, beginning at the age of 16. As James Gregory’s poignant obituary in today’s New York Times explained, “Ben Bella chafed at colonialism from an early age — he recalled a run-in with a racist secondary school teacher — and complained of France’s cultural influence. ‘We think in Arabic, but we talk in French,’ he said.” Ben Bella’s political conscience was sharpened on high school football pitches under colonial rule. “When I maneuvered at speed against the enemy,” Bella remembered, “nobody asked me whether I was European or Algerian — I either scored or I didn’t, and that was that. I was responsible only to myself for success and failure alike.”
Conscripted into the French military in 1937, Ben Bella “took to soldiering as readily as he had to soccer back home. He was promoted to sergeant and won celebrity as a soccer star in Marseille,” according to the Times. He earned the Croix de Guerre for bringing down German bombers with his anti-aircraft gun during the Nazi assault in 1940. After the fall of Marseilles, Ben Bella was offered a professional football contract but turned it down and returned home instead. He eventually joined the Free French forces under De Gaulle and was decorated again for his role in the Italian campaign of 1944. After the war, he became a leader in the Algerian independence movement.
Ben Bella, like other African nationalists, believed that football — originally a European colonial game — could be appropriated and made to express African people’s desire for equality and freedom. While in exile during the second phase of Algeria’s war of independence (1958-62), he lent his imprimatur to the FLN XI — a remarkable team of France-based professionals formed in 1958 that came to symbolize Algeria’s quest for freedom and its crystallizing national identity. (For more details about the history of this team, see my book African Soccerscapes and Ian Hawkey’s Feet of the Chameleon. French readers can also consult R. Saadallah and D. Benfars’s La Glorieuse Équipe du FLN and Michel Nait-Challal’s Dribbleurs de l’indépendance.)
Ben Bella later became Algeria’s first Prime Minister and then its first president (1963-65), until a military coup got rid of him and kept him under house arrest for 14 years. Exiled in 1980, he still managed to celebrate Algeria’s 2-1 victory over West Germany in the 1982 World Cup: the first World Cup win by an African team against a European side (highlights here). Ben Bella returned to Algeria in 1990 and remained politically engaged, as an opponent of the U.S. war in Iraq, and as a critic of global capitalism and radical Islamism. Ultimately, his football style and leadership style informed each other: “Ben Bella always wanted his teammates to pass the ball so that he could score,” a former schoolmate recalled. “He was the same in politics.”
Mahfoud Amara, “Football Sub-Culture and Youth Politics in Algeria,” Mediterranean Politics, 17, 1 (2012): 41-58.
Omdurman, Sudan, October 8, 2005: moments after Ivory Coast secured qualification to the World Cup finals for the first time, Didier Drogba extemporaneously transformed himself into a peacemaker. His country at the time was torn apart by a civil war between the Muslim-dominated rebel-held north and the mainly Christian south controlled by President Laurent Gbagbo’s government. Surrounded by joyous teammates in the dressing room, Drogba took the microphone and knelt in front of the television cameras. “We have proved that all Ivorians can live together,” he said, “and we can unite with the same objectives. Please, put down your weapons!”
The dressing room scene provides the emotional spark and narrative hook in “Didier Drogba and the Ivorian Civil War,” the riveting first episode of “Football Rebels,” a five-part documentary that began this week on Al Jazeera English. (Watch it here.) “It was just something I did instinctively,” the Ivorian striker would later tell Alex Hayes of The Telegraph in a 2007 interview. “All the players hated what was happening to our country, and reaching the World Cup was the perfect emotional wave on which to ride.”
The Al Jazeera documentary film reveals the little-known story of how Drogba played a key role in getting the national team, The Elephants, to play a 2008 African Nations Cup qualifier against Madagascar in Bouaké in the rebel heartland. Ivory Coast won 3-0, triggering a much needed sense of patriotic pride, national unity, and peace. (Highlights below.)
Presented by former Manchester United star Eric Cantona, “Football Rebels” focuses on players “whose social conscience led them to use their fame and influence to challenge unjust regimes, join opposition movements and lead the fight for democracy and human rights in their countries.” The next episode features another brilliant African player: Rachid Mekhloufi, who left the 1958 French World Cup team to join the FLN team aiding the cause of Algerian independence.
CAF have announced Togo will be disqualified if they do not materialize for the kick off of their fixture against Ghana tonight in Cabinda.
Rumours abound whether Botswana, The Republic of the Congo or Namibia will be invited to do a “Denmark”.
Cabinda’s separatist rebels, FLEC, have apologized for the attack, claiming it was a mistake to attack the Togolese, and have presented their condolences to the families of the deceased.
Pessimists supported by hustlers and vultures from the security and shock industry continue to make fear representations to the press about South Africa’s World Cup.
And it now seems Confusão has rubbed off on the Algerian defence, who are being torn to shreds by Malawi.
TEN POT OBSERVATIONS.
1. FIFA got the seedings right. Pot 1 seeds earned their ranking. France did not. France’s final appearance was four years ago.
2. Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay have come out of the pot alignment better than most. Each of the smaller South American nations will avoid the big five African qualifiers in the 1st Round.
3. Argentina and Brazil cannot avoid the African qualifiers from Pot 3. The seeds for two potential Groups of Death have now been sown. Has FIFA put Brazil at risk for an early bath?
4. The most frightening Group of Death would be: Brazil, Mexico, Côte d’Ivoire and Portugal.
5. The dark horse of Pot 2 is Honduras.
In case you missed the goal of the World Cup playoffs. Here it is. Antar Yahia’s screamer in Sudan.
Relive the goal. Relive the celebrations. Be in no doubt: This is for 1982. This is for the players with the peppery hair and tears in their eyes. This is for the players who were robbed.
Ireland may get their revenge vicariously through Algeria. The Desert Foxes will show Monsieur Henry and his merry band of collaborators no mercy.
Algeria’s Rafik MacSaifi celebrates against the auld enemy in Omdurman.
Rafik Saidi’s 59th minute winner in Algiers this past weekend looks to have ended Zambia’s hopes for South Africa. Rwanda must beat Algeria and Zambia must beat Egypt for Zambia to have any chance. The Phoraohs will be praying for Rwanda too.
Algerians can get busy securing their various vantage points for the tournament. Save me a Spec at the Babylon Fútbol Café!