Rebels of the Desert
“It is not just a simple game; it is a weapon of the revolution”. How true is that? At a time when the world is divided on the basis of every little thing, a story like this stands as an exception, an inspiration. Football, as a global sport, has always stood against fascism and fought against war and bloodshed. Srinwantu Dey at Goalden Times through this exceptional story tells us how we can revolt by just playing this beautiful game.
The French exit and the Algerian WarIt was 24th June 1958, at Råsunda Stadium in Sweden, a gallant French team, consisting of charismatic players like Just Fontaine and Raymond Kopa, were facing an energetic Brazilian side boasting the likes of Garrincha, Vavá, Mário Zagallo, and a certain young Pele in the World Cup semifinal. In the 35th minute of the match, Robert Jonquet, the French captain and their most dependable defender, broke his fibula after colliding with Vava. The French, literally, became a 10-man team, as no substitution was allowed at that time. The defence, thus, was rendered incapable of handling the firepower of the Selecao attack force. Pele ended up scoring a hat-trick and Brazil demolished France 5-2. The French dream was shattered and Brazil went on to win the cup. However, a few ardent fans still believe that the result could have been different had but for certain apparently unrelated events that were unfolding at the same time.
Burning Algeria. 1960. Algerian students engaged in a street battle with French tanks
While the French eleven were being knocked out from the World Cup, their army was busy facing Algerian guerrilla attacks in another part of the planet. Algeria was burning. French occupation of Algeria had started in 1830, when the French invaded the Algerian terrains. With time Algeria became the destination of thousands of European immigrants. As a result of this immigration, the native Muslims and tribes of Algeria started losing their economical and bureaucratic status. This slowly gave rise to unrest. War between France and the National Liberation Front (FLN) of Algeria finally broke out in 1954. This war killed thousands of French allies and native Algerians. The war, characterized by guerrilla attacks, terrorism, tortures, and organized assassinations by both sides left a deep scar on Algerian society and culture. Football became a formidable allying point for this blood-stained Algerian independence movement.
The Sétif massacre
Anti-French sentiment had started growing throughout Algeria even before the second World War. As the war was nearing its end, around 4000 protesters had gathered in Sétif, a town in the north-eastern part of Algeria, holding demonstrations in the streets demanding independence. On 8th May 1945, the day of the formal end of World War II in Europe, some such local demonstrations triggered a public firing by the French authorities. The small Algerian town didn’t bend back. It retaliated by attacking French colonies in the countryside, resulting in more than a hundred European deaths. In response, the French authorities started organized counterattacks, killing thousands of Algerian Muslims. According to European sources the count was not more than 20,000, but Algerian historians put the death toll to more than 45,000. This marked the turning point in France’s relationship with Algeria, and gave birth to the Algerian independence movement.
This horrendous onslaught changed the lives of many Algerians. A 10-year-old short and feeble boy was one of them. He was deeply affected by the bloodshed and sensed a certain form of patriotism inside him, but unlike others who resorted to violence and revenge against the French, he would go on to channelize those emotions on a different stage, through a different medium. He was a champion footballer at his age. His ball control on the dry Algerian terrain amazed everybody. Later, he joined the local club Union Sportive Médina Sétif. His skilful playing style and large number of goals attracted a lot of attention, and in the summer of 1954 his life took a turn when a recruiter of a famous French club, AS Saint-Étienne, spotted him and took him to France. Although his joyful playing career made the name of Rachid Mekhloufi famous, his dark childhood would ultimately define his life.
Rachid Mekhloufi (Source “A Football Report”)
The French Affair
When Rachid first came to Stade Geoffroy-Guichard (home of Saint-Étienne) he was yet to play on a grass field having all along played on the dry Algerian soil. His skills and trickery impressed the new manager and former “prisoner of war” Jean Snella and he soon became a pillar of the team. He formed a deadly partnership with Cameroonian striker, Eugène ‘the panther’ N’Jo Léa and the two formed the Attack Machine Gun (as dubbed by the media). They helped Saint-Étienne to their first league title in 1957 and kept their scoring boots busy in European stages as well. They defined the start of Saint-Étienne’s rise in French Football (Ligue 1 has been won 10 times by this team between 1957 and 1981) and Rachid was duly called up by the French national team. While he achieved glory and fame on the pitch, Rachid never forgot his roots or his innate sense of compassion. His companion Eugène (who became a diplomat for Cameroon eventually) and his manager Jean Snella gave him support.
Mustapha Zitouni (middle) with Yvon Douis & Just Fontaine [Source L’Équipe]
There was another Algerian at that time who was dominating French football. He was Mustapha Zitouni—the 30-year-old formidable centre-back of Monaco. His outstanding display and command on the field made him an automatic selection for the national side. Paul Nicolas, former France international and member of the national selection committee, had immense faith in him and put him at the heart of the team’s defence. Dependency on the legendary Robert Jonquet started diminishing and Zitouni started establishing himself as one of the best defenders of Europe. Zitouni reached the pinnacle of his performance on 13th March 1958, when, in a match against Spain, he literally bogged down the great Alfredo Di Stéfano. He won every single duel against Di Stéfano that night, and, as an outcome, Real Madrid sought him out for a potential transfer. He was outstanding throughout the World Cup qualifying campaign and his acrobatic and heroic goal line save against Belgium ensured France’s ticket to the tournament. Zitouni made the French dream of World Cup glory in Sweden. However, ultimately, he neither went to Santiago Bernabéu, nor to Sweden to chase his dreams.
At the time when Rachid and Zitouni were being prepared for the ensuing 1958 World Cup, the National Liberation Front (FLN) of Algeria was battling against their colonizers. A few visionary leaders of FLN knew that guns and bullets might win them a battle or two, but wouldn’t be able to spread awareness and patriotism among the larger population. Mohamed Boumezrag was one of them. He was a former footballer of France and an integral part of Bordeaux and US Mans during the war. He knew the potential of the beautiful game as an inspirational element of national identity. A fundraising match for the 1954 Chlef earthquake victims sparked in him the idea to form a football team. This match took place between France and a selected team from North African nations. The Africans scored three goals and won the match. The idea was well backed by FLN socialist leader and the first post-liberation president of Algeria, Ahmed Ben Bella, who had a football background as well. Between 1939 and 1940, while he was in the military, he played for the French football team, Olympique de Marseille, as a midfielder. He also played for an Algerian football club, IRB Maghnia, but couldn’t continue due to his interest in the independence movement.
Team FLN [Source Rue89]
FLN started contacting renowned Algerian footballers in France and the first liberation football team of Algeria was established on 13th April 1958—just two months before the World Cup. Three Algerian players from the Earthquake charity match were contacted by Boumezrag, and Operation Exodus took shape. The defection started when 10 footballers escaped through the national border of France and took shelter in Tunisia, where FLN had one of their working units. Rachid Mekhloufi and Mustapha Zitouni were also part of this operation. The spearhead of the French national team, who was supposed to partner Just Fontaine and Raymond Kopa in the summer World Cup, didn’t think twice before leaving for his home soil. So did Zitouni, who was on the verge of World Cup glory and a possible dream Real Madrid move. Zitouni, with four other Algerian footballers, left for Tunisa through the French–Italian border. However, Rachid Mekhloufi’s escape wasn’t that easy. He was a star goal scorer at that time, and was under close scrutiny of officials and the media. According to folklore, his striking partner Eugene helped him flee by colliding with him intentionally in a match against ASSE-Béziers on 12th April. Rachid scored a goal in that match and was later admitted to the hospital, following the framed collision. That was where he fled from, and along four other Algerian footballers, escaped to the city of Tunis (capital of Tunisia). The Algerian national football team was slowly taking birth.
The goal of this team was not just to play football. They represented the independence movement of Algeria and echoed millions of repressed voices, even though it wasn’t affiliated to FIFA. The French authority was shocked and dejected with this sudden exodus of their star players. Many footballers were caught and imprisoned while attempting escape. Rachid was sentenced to jail for a decade during his trial in absentia. They even requested FIFA to ban those teams who participated in any match with the FLN team. Despite the threat, however, a number of nations did show interest in playing with the Independence Eleven in solidarity. The team started its journey with the demolition of a weak Tunisian team and played numerous matches against teams like Libya, Vietnam, China, Iraq, Morocco, Yugoslavia, Romania, Hungary, and others— touring three continents over four years. As punishment, FIFA removed the Moroccan Football Federation from their list of affiliated boards in 1958. but there was no cease in support for the revolutionary eleven.
The team was truly formidable, decorated by the two diamonds of French Football—Rachid Mekhloufi and Mustapha Zitouni—who left all their fame and glory to become ambassadors for the Algerian patriotic spirit. Boumezrag, had a coaching career spanning over 12 years, used to manage the team mostly in the 4-2-4 format, and his socio-political consciousness drove the team’s adrenaline. Their mauling of a strong Yugoslavia team by 6-0 was just an illustration of the fact. This daunting eleven was once undefeated for 14 matches and finished its campaign scoring more than four goals per match. According to RSSSF, “…1958 and 1962 playing 91 matches, with 65 victories, 13 draws and 13 defeats, scoring 385 goals and conceding 127”. The most moving part of this campaign was when before each game the green and white flags would be waved and players would sing their national anthem “Kassamen” with gusto.
“We will rise, and whether living or dead,
We are determined that Algeria shall live –
Be our witness -Be -Be our witness our witness”
Algerian people and its media started symbolizing their win, courage, and sacrifice as their inspiration. The left wing media of Europe (including that in France) started portraying the rebels as true patriots. After a lot of bloodshed, Algeria became independent in 1962, but the counter-violence struggle of these footballers was never forgotten.
Mustapha Zitouni found checking French Football news paper. Tunisa, April, 1958. [Source FIFA]
Algeria has always had a long history of football being connected with political and liberation movements. The FLN team was the best example of how the game of football symbolized national identity and its contribution defined the final phase of Algerian independence revolution. As one of Algerian militant leaders, Ferhat Abbas, said, “They rule us with guns and machines. On a man to man basis, on the field of football, we can show them who really is superior”. After the team was dissolved in 1962, the players went back to their professions. Rachid went back to France and won Ligue 1 thrice with Saint-Étienne – “The Greens” and even got awards from French President Charles de Gaulle. However, the best time of their career was spent in untelevised footballing hinterlands. Their World Cup dream was diminished to magazines, a small radio box in Tunisia, and a few letters from Raymond Kopa. Together, they made history. The French team definitely missed the unquestionable defensive prowess of Zitouni that day against Pele and Garrincha. Who knows, history may have been different for the Les Blues otherwise. But, as Zitouni once told an interviewer -“I have many friends in France, but the problem is bigger than us. What do you do if your country is at war and you are called?”
The story of these rebel footballers has been, curiously, forgotten by modern football enthusiasts. We currently define Algerian football by a certain Zinedine Yazid Zidane. At most, we remember Algeria’s mishap in World Cup ‘82. Zidane’s football has never been influenced by the Algerian struggle as his parents had migrated to France a year before Rachid joined Saint-Étienne. Mustapha Zitouni died the same day when Eusébio passed away. While the whole world wept for Eusébio, not many knew of Zitouni’s demise. However even though the world may have forgotten them, the legacy of these footballers will endure in the heart of Algerians forever.
- Al Jazeera
- African Soccerscapes: How a Continent Changed the World’s Game – By Peter Alegi
- Transition and Development in Algeria: Economic, Social and Cultural Challenges
- Africa, Football and FIFA: Politics, Colonialism and Resistance- By Paul Darby
- French Football Weekly
- The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer By David Goldblatt
- The Emergence of the ‘Third World’ – by Miles Hodges