In 1958 a small group of professional Algerian footballers risked their careers, their livelihoods and even their freedom to play a small but significant role in the country’s battle for independence from France – a story little known today.
On Monday, April 14 1958 a car carrying four young men approached the French-Swiss border. Nerves must have been jangling as the border guards stopped their vehicle. But rather than ask any awkward questions about where they were headed or why, the guards asked for the men’s autographs before waiving them through.
Four Algerian stars of French football – Abdelhamid Bouchouk, Abdelhamid Kermali, Rachid Mekhloufi and Mokhtar Arribi – had just passed the point of no return on a course of events that would shape the rest of their lives.
All four had promising careers at top-level French football clubs at the time – but now they were giving it all up, clandestinely slipping out of the country to play their own small but significant role in Algeria’s bloody war for independence, led by the National Liberation Front (FLN) and already four years old at the time.
From Switzerland they would eventually make their way to Italy and then Tunis, where they would be joined by eight others who had made the journey from France, abandoning their French clubs to form the core of what would become the “Equipe FLN”, a de facto Algerian national team that would represent a country that was not yet independent.
The idea of an Algerian national football team was the brain child of Mohamed Boumezrag, a former professional footballer who had played in France. The FLN’s leader, Ahmed Ben Bella, who himself had once lined up for Olympique Marseille, was well aware of the political potential of football. It was a way to show that the country could stand on its own two feet in every aspect of life, even in sport. He gave Boumezrag the go ahead to start the recruitment process.
For Mekhloufi, perhaps the best known of the Algerian players, it was the start of a whirlwind journey that took him from a star at Ligue 1 champions Saint-Étienne into an unknown world where the line between sport and politics became indistinguishably blurred.
“Kermali and Arribi came to see me on the eve of a match against Beziers and told me: ‘We’re going to Tunisia to form a team’,” he recalls.
But, carrying out his military service at the time and fearing leaving France would result in him being imprisoned as a deserter, Mekhloufi was initially reluctant.
“In that game [against Beziers], I got a head injury. I fainted and was sent to hospital,” says Mekhloufi.
“I told myself it was a good thing and that [Kermali and Arribi] would forget about me. But then in the morning they were at the door of my room. I was still in my pyjamas. I told them I couldn’t go because my passport was at the head office at Saint-Étienne. We had to go and get it. It was all a rush – we had to get to the Swiss border quickly because some of the other footballers were already in Italy. I didn’t know where we were going, but Kermali and Arribi reassured me.”
At that time, Algeria was still considered a region of France. Algerians were French nationals and footballers born in the north-African colony had been representing the French national team for decades.
Among those bound to join the FLN team were some of the biggest names in French football. Mekhloufi and another player, Mustapha Zitouni, had already been selected as part of the French national squad set to take part in that year’s World Cup.
The players knew the risk they were taking. They would become traitors in the eyes of many back in France while giving up professional careers they may never be able to reestablish. Many would also be leaving behind friends and family, wives and children.
But there was even more at stake than a stalled career and public anger. The decisions to slip out of the country at a time of heightened tension could, for some of them, mean jail.
Mekhloufi managed to make it out of France without attracting the attention of the authorities. But others were not so lucky. One player, Hassen Chabri, was arrested at the French-Italian border on suspicion of trying to smuggle arms to Algeria. He spent a year in prison.
Outcry in France, victory on the pitch
Back in France, news of the players’ departures sparked an outcry. France immediately sought to have any nation that played against the new FLN team punished by FIFA, while Mekloufi and other players still subject French military service rules were sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison for desertion.
But from the FLN’s point of view, it was a propaganda coup, showing that the independence cause could pervade every corner of society.
It helped that the new Algerian team proved to be rather good. Despite France’s protestations, they lined up matches against a number of national sides and handed out some considerable thrashings to many of them: 6-1 against Yugoslavia, 6-2 against Hungary and 6-0 against the USSR were just a few of their impressive victories.
For Mekhloufi, suddenly finding himself thrust from a sports star to a political symbol, it was an eye opener.
“I can say ‘thank god’ for giving me this team because without it I would be incapable of speaking to you the way I am today,” he says.
“The contact we had with heads of state, revolutionaries, the people, journalists, it opened my mind. Before I was a donkey! With my friends, we were playing football, we laughed, we chased girls, we went to the movies, and that was it.”
Return to France
The Equipe FLN played more than 50 matches over the next four years, as all the while Algeria edged towards its independence.
On March 19, 1962, the Evian Accords were signed, ending the war and granting Algeria its liberation from its colonial master of more than 130 years. Not that the bloodshed ended there. There were severe, often deadly reprisals for Algerians who had supported the French, while hundreds of thousands Algerians of European descent, the pieds-noirs, fled to France.
But amid the fallout of the two countries’ separation, football proved a rare example of bridges being rebuilt. Of the 30 professionals who left France to play for the FLN, 13 returned to France after Algerian independence, many going back to their previous clubs.
They did so under a cloud of apprehension, fearing they would be seen as traitors by supporters. Instead fans cheered their names, glad to have their sporting heroes back. Contemporary reports tell of an awed silence when Mekhloufi touched the ball for the first time upon his return to Saint-Étienne, followed by rapturous applause. He would go on to win a further three titles with the club, as well as represent Algeria’s first official national team, along with some of his former FLN teammates.
‘A choice of the heart’
Half a century later and football still inextricably links France and its former colony. When France won the 1998 World Cup it was a French-Algerian, one Zinedine Zidane, who powered them to victory, becoming a national hero in the process.
Others with Algerian roots, including current France players Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema, have also worn the jersey of Les Bleus. The current Algerian squad is also packed with players born in France but have chosen to represent the country of their parents.
Mekhloufi understands the difficulty dual-nationality players face in choosing who to play for – knowing full well the fear of being seen as betraying one’s country.
“It is a national team. It is something profound, which enters into the veins,” he says. “It has to be a choice of the heart.”
Date created : 2016-04-08