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.
On April 13, 1958, in the midst of Algeria’s war of independence, ten Algerian professional players surreptitiously left France for Tunis. Among them was 21-year-old St. Etienne forward Rachid Mekhloufi, the central character in the second installment of the “Football Rebels” documentary on Al Jazeera.
Through evocative interviews, archival footage, and on-camera visits to important historical sites, the documentary crafts a lively, humanistic, and emotional account of the FLN team. In tours of North Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and East Asia between 1958 and 1961, the Algerians compiled a record of sixty-five wins, thirteen draws, and thirteen losses. Playing entertaining, attacking football, the FLN side heightened international awareness of the Algerian fight against French colonialism and garnered broad support for the FLN, at home and abroad. The Algerians even sought to become part of FIFA, but the world body rejected the application.
In a highpoint of the film, Mekhloufi remembers how wearing a national uniform, flying a national flag, and singing “Kassaman” (We Pledge)–which later became independent Algeria’s national anthem–in a stadium full of ordinary fans as well as guerrillas instilled pride in him and made an imagined “Algeria” real. “What I got out of that FLN team,” says Mekhloufi in the closing moments of the film, “couldn’t have been bought with all the gold in the world.” Indeed, by putting patriotism before profit and crystallizing an emerging national identity, the FLN footballers propelled the Algerian people’s quest for equality and freedom. What an incredibly powerful story about sport and human rights. Watch, listen, and learn.
For more details about this revolutionary football team, see my post “Death of a Striker, Fighter, and Socialist” on Ben Bella and my book African Soccerscapes. Other helpful sources are Ian Hawkey’s Feet of the Chameleon, Laurent Dubois’s Soccer Empire, and, for French readers, R. Saadallah and D. Benfars’s La Glorieuse Équipe du FLN and Michel Nait-Challal’s Dribbleurs de l’indépendance.