Algeria’s performance during the 2021 FIFA Arab Cup offers a number of interesting insights into the social and political context of the country itself. The tournament was won by a national team made up of so-called local players from the domestic Algerian league and other leagues across North Africa and the Arabian Gulf. Most of these players are products of the national football system, coming from traditional clubs or the new factory of Algerian football talents, Paradou football academy. Algerians often joke that the country’s main exports are oil Rai music and footballers.
The debate of ‘locals’ versus ‘professionals’ (i.e. Algerians playing in Europe) has always had nationalistic undertones – loyalty to the Algerian nation, Algerians of Algeria versus those Algerians of the diaspora (the majority of whom are in France). Following its independence from French rule in 1962, Algeria banned professional football for a decade, which was equated with colonial exploitation and neo-imperialism. However, the spread of football and its growing media exposure forced the national football federation to select ‘professionals’ for the qualification campaigns during the 1982 and 1986 World Cups. Representing Algeria as a ‘professional’ is tricky, sometimes these players are celebrated as heroes when the Algerian national team is winning and other times depicted as not true Algerians when the national team is not doing well. They’re even accused of being sons of Harki- the generic term for Muslim Algerians who served as auxiliaries in the French Army during the Algerian War of Independence from 1954 to 1962.
The title of the Arab Cup – which was endorsed for the first time by FIFA- raises many longstanding questions about how Algerians identify themselves today; are we Arab, Berber, or Mediterranean? Most of the time the question of ethnicity is confused with that of religion – a hangover of the divide and conquer practices of the colonial period. Those in favour of the Berber component are associated with secularism, whilst those in favor of Arab identity are associated with pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism. A false construction of unified identities and oppositions to them which only suits those who seek to reignite rifts between the people. This is particlarly pertinent in the wake of the mass Hirak protests which rocked Algeria in 2019 demanding the resignation of former president Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika after more than two decades in power.
The Algerian regime, which was trying to re-establish control, accused the Rachad movement (labelled as Islamist and close to the Muslim Brotherhood) and Movement for the Autonomy of La Kabylie (whose leaders are based in France and call for the autonomy of the Kabylia region from the rest of ‘Arab’ parts of Algeria) of infiltrating the non-partisan Hirak. Hence attempting to divert attention away from its original cause of peaceful democratic change and the construction of ‘a new Algeria’. Both movements are accused of being financially and logistically supported by ‘the enemy of the Algerian Nation and its unity’.
Contrary to the view held by the Hirak movement, the presidential office and military called for the end of the protests, arguing that the election of a new president, a new parliament and mayors showed that the initial demands of the people have been met. This is despite the very poor turnout at the ballot box.
In fact, Algeria’s 2019 African Cup of Nations triumph was celebrated as the victory of the ‘new’ regime led by Chief of the Army Gaid Salah and acting Head of State Abdelkader Bendsallah, against the ‘old system’ that Bouteflika and his old guard represented. Ignoring that the new leadership had actually always been part of the regime.
Algeria’s victory in the 2021 FIFA Arab Cup was then portrayed as a symbol and accomplishment of the ‘new Algeria’. This narrative was very dominant in the ceremony organized by the new president Abdelmajid Tebboun and the new Algerian army Chief of Staff, General Said Chengriha, who welcomed the national football team upon their return from Doha. It was followed by a media orchestrated parade in the street of Algiers. The Algerian national television channel which had exclusively broadcast the ceremony and parade, found itself at the center of twitter memes which mocked the poor quality of images and old style commentaries which were in stark contrast to the new era of social media, digital and crystal clear broadcasting technologies. An apt symbol for a not so new regime.
Apart from the geo-political dimension, the victory of the Algerian national team in the 2021 FIFA Arab Cup and the 2019 African Cup of Nations, led by two Algerian coaches (respectively Majid Bougherra and the head coach Jamal Belmadi) who were both born and raised in France with international experience in top European clubs, offered the opportunity to celebrate a unified Algerian success.
With Covid-19 bringing an abrupt ending to Hirak demonstrations, football has been a revitalising endeavour for many Algerians. The team’s success has also demonstrated that it is both possible to train Algerian players to compete at an international level, and that ultimately it matters little if they are Algerians born in Algeria, in Europe or elsewhere. What really matters for the people is the added value and competence that is brought to the national team in order to serve its success, and that of the country.
Mahfoud Amara is an Associate Professor in Sport Management and Social Sciences at Qatar University.
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