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Algeria - France Would Be a Truly Historic Showdown

A slightly premature second round preview


Algeria’s 4-2 victory over South Korea on Sunday was a historic one. The scoreline marked the most goals scored by the side—and by any African nation—in a World Cup match. Algeria looked convincing, playing a fast, attacking, and physical game. The product was exciting and high-scoring.

The win triggered massive celebrations in Algiers and throughout Algeria, as well as other parts of North Africa and the Middle East. But there was also plenty of celebrating streets of France, notably in Paris where Algerian fans celebrated in several neighborhoods and crowded the Champs Elysées. This was in many ways a local, perhaps even a national, victory in France. Two-thirds of players on Algeria’s squad were born and raised in France, and trained in its excellent state-supported footballing academies.

Yacine Brahimi, the attacking midfielder who played a critical role throughout the game and scored the last goal, was born in Paris to Algerian parents, and trained at the French national footballing academy in Clairefontaine. He was a star of France’s youth teams from 2006 to 2012, scoring 11 goals in 2008-2009. Though he was approached by the Algerian squad several years ago, before the 2010 World Cup, he long hesitated. But in 2013, Brahimi announced he would play for his parent’s home country. Raïs M’Bohli, Algeria’s goalie, was also born in Paris, to a Congolese father and Algerian mother. He was also called up for the French international youth squad on a few occasions, but made his decision to play for Algeria clear from an early age. M’Bohli traveled to the 2010 World Cup as a substitute goalkeeper, but ended up playing for much of the tournament. Such players, alongside a number of others born and raised in Algeria, compose a powerful collective now on the brink of making even more history. Their country has never made it out of the group stages of the World Cup, but if they defeat Russia on Thursday they will.

The players carry with them the history and expectations born of two earlier great generations of Algerian players. The first of these were those who, in the midst of the Algerian War of Independence against France, created a national team to represent the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN). These were players who were born in Algeria, but went on to play professional football in France. Two among them, Rachid Mekloufi and Mustapha Zitouni, received a call to play on the French World Cup squad of 1958. Instead, they give up their chance to appear on the global stage—leaving behind another player from North Africa, Just Fontaine, who was part of the French settler community in Morocco—to represent an insurgent nation seeking recognition on the international stage. The Algerian Revolution understood what many political leaders and movements have: A winning football team is one of the best representatives for any country.

FIFA refused to recognize the Algerian team, and punished those who played against them, but the FLN representatives nevertheless found a welcome throughout North Africa, in Eastern Europe, and in Vietnam, drawing large crowds with the quality of their play. Before each match, the FLN anthem—composed by a political prisoner held by the French—was sung, and the FLN flag was raised. That anthem and flag became those of the new nation when it gained its independence in 1962. When the French born players on the team sang yesterday, they were quite literally channeling the history of anticolonial revolt through song.  

The second great generation of Algerian footballers shook up the World Cup in 1982. In one of the most famous upsets in the tournament, they defeated West Germany 2-1 in a victory widely hailed as a triumph for Africa over Europe. In the final group game, however, Austria and West Germany colluded to make sure they would go through and Algeria wouldn’t. A generation of fans in North Africa—and beyond—never forgot and never forgave.

The ghost of that match lurks in this tournament now, as many are wondering whether the US and Germany will play to a draw in order to assure they both advance and Ghana doesn’t. The lesson of history is that if a draw happens, whether intentionally or not, both the US and Germany will likely earn the enmity of a new generation of fans.

But Algeria has the chance to rewrite history on its own terms. With this generation of players, they can dream of moving even further into the tournament than the Round of 16. Indeed, watching the match Sunday, people started dreaming of a French-Algeria match-up. This is obviously a long shot, as Algeria will have to defeat not just Russia but also, in all probability, Germany—again.  

The only previous match between France and Algeria was a friendly played in 2001 in Paris. It ended up not so friendly: Fans of the Algerian team rushed onto pitch to avoid defeat, and the game was never completed. On the field that day for France was the nation’s greatest footballer, Zinedine Zidane, born of Algerian parents. Before the match, he admitted that he wouldn’t mind a tie. But he was also part of a long and venerable tradition: that of North Africans representing France. In the 1930s one of the first international stars of professional football was the Casablanca-born Larbi Ben Barek. He played for France and earned respect of fans for his play and for his spirited rendition of the Marseillaisse in front of Mussolini at the 1934 World Cup. Today, it is France’s star striker Karim Benzema who carries on that tradition. Benzema has been targeted at times by the ascendant far right—as Zidane was before him—for the fact that he doesn’t sing the national anthem before the games.

Though on paper a highly symbolic confrontation between former colony and former colonizer, the outcome of a France - Algeria game would be determined by players who share a common set of personal and professional experiences. For many of them, their places on the field will the result of a combination of choices inherited and choices made. And they might wonder why they aren’t on the other side.

For now, the Algerian team seems ready to carry the burden they have inherited. Representatives of a politically rich sporting history, they have the opportunity to undo prior disappointments, and to give fans—some of whom have been waiting for this for much of their lives, since before Algeria even existed as a nation—at least a taste of that rarest of global dishes: glory in the World Cup.