Letter From - Autumn 2010

Algeria: Waiting for a Goal

By Eric Calderwood | September 1, 2010
Photo by Eric Calderwood
Photo by Eric Calderwood


The flags had appeared overnight, peeking out from behind windows or unfurled along wrought-iron balconies above the dusty streets of Oran, Algeria’s second-largest city. Little pennants traveled on the antennae and rear windows of cars. The entire city was enveloped by a canopy of green, white, and red—the colors of the Algerian flag. These flags were the surest sign that the Mediterranean’s largest country was back in the World Cup after a 24-year absence. In 1962, Algerians greeted their independence from France with massive street celebrations, filled with flag-waving fervor—scenes immortalized by the classic film The Battle of Algiers. But the recent and savage civil war (1992–2004), which claimed at least 150,000 victims, made flag-waving displays of patriotism fairly rare in Algeria. The country’s qualification for the World Cup in November achieved what national reconciliation plans have been unable to achieve: a return to popular displays of patriotic pride.

Algeria entered the tournament as one of the youngest, least experienced, and lowest ranked among the 32 teams that qualified for the World Cup. Its coach, Rabah Saadane, seemed to have these limitations in mind when he called the Cup an “apprenticeship” and a “lesson” for his young players. Nevertheless, Saadane’s caution didn’t temper the Algerian nation’s expectations. The first piece of graffiti I saw when I arrived in Oran turned out to be the most ubiquitous: Ma’ak yal khadra. Diri hala! “We’re with you, Green. Do it!” (Green is the nickname for the national team.) Even more audacious were the small posters that popped up in storefront windows on rue Larbi ben M’hidi, Oran’s main commercial thoroughfare. Beneath a picture of the national team’s starting lineup, these posters implored: “Bring it home!”

No self-respecting soccer expert or fan expected Algeria to make a run at the title; indeed, few outside of Algeria gave its team any chance of even making it out of the first round. Nevertheless, Algerian fans supported their team with a fervor matching that of the Spanish and the Dutch, whose teams would meet in the final on July 11. Like citizens of the other African nations in the World Cup, who rarely enter the global spotlight, Algerians put a startling and disproportionate amount of energy and hope into their country’s soccer team. In a land of dreams deferred, a land still recovering from its War of Independence, where civil strife continues to boil beneath the surface of everyday life, the Cup provided a much-needed respite.

On June 13, the day Algeria played Slovenia in its first World Cup match, I met my friends Farid and Ouassini at the restaurant Le Mediterranee in downtown Oran. The restaurant has what I imagine to be the ambiance of an American gentleman’s club of the 1940s. Its interior is dark—due to the lack of natural light and the faux-parquet paneling on the walls. Le Mediterranee, like most alcohol-serving restaurants in Oran, has an overwhelmingly male and largely upper-class clientele. In such a restaurant, you pay a premium to eat mediocre meat-and-potato dishes in the esteemed presence of beer and wine. Not many working-class Algerians are able to pay for this privilege.

When we arrived at the restaurant 10 minutes before the 12:30 p.m. match time, the long, banquet-style tables were already cluttered with empty bottles of beer and wine. We needed to elbow our way through the crowd to claim a spot behind the bar with the bartender, who was Farid’s friend. A cold bottle of Albrau, the local brew (whose green bottle matches the color of Algeria’s uniform), materialized before me, and soon more beers were being sent my way. Later in the game, Hamza, my neighbor at the bar, ordered me not one but two steaks.

From the bar, I looked out at the patrons, whose eyes were already fixed on the plasma screens on the restaurant’s front and back walls. Most of the men were decked out in the green and white jerseys of the national team and matching baseball caps that sported the Algerian flag. While waiting for the match to begin, they chain-smoked Rym cigarettes and talked loudly. When the Algerian team ap­peared on the screen, waiting in a tunnel to enter the stadium, the crowd at Le Mediterranee burst into applause. They then performed, in unison, a three-beat rhythm by clapping their hands and tapping on the tabletops and didn’t stop until they heard the opening chords of the Algerian national anthem. At that moment, to my surprise, the already somewhat inebriated crowd fell absolutely silent, and then they began singing along passionately.

The team is known not only as les Verts, but also as the Fennecs, the “Desert Foxes.” This last name is fitting, as many of the Algerian players are remarkably foxlike: wiry, lithe figures with elegant coiffures. After the first half of the Slovenia match ended in a tense 0–0 draw, the second half was largely defined by two of the foxes: Abdelkader Ghezzal and Faouzi Chaouchi. Both players support the going hairstyle on the Algerian squad: shaved on the side, dyed platinum blond on top.

Time and again, les Verts danced the ball down the field, eluding Slovenian defenders, only to have their momentum cut off by an errant pass or shot. The most frequent critique of the Algerians is that they can’t finish: that is, they do everything except score. Against Slovenia, the Algerians took 10 shots, but none got in. Fortunately for national morale, the Algerians did succeed in getting through one set of defenders: the heavy stadium security. Early in the second half, an Algerian fan climbed to the top of one of the stadium lights and raised an Algerian flag. The crowd at Le Mediterranee cheered the first victory of Algeria’s World Cup campaign.

In the 80th minute, just seven minutes after Ghezzal’s ejection for two yellow cards left the Algerian side playing one man down, Slovenia’s Robert Koren broke loose from the Algerian defense on the left flank and delivered a tentative 25-yard shot on the Algerian goal. To the shock and dismay of the crowd at Le Mediterranee, goalkeeper Faouzi Chaouchi let this speculative shot squirm through his gloves and into the net. After the goal, the restaurant’s owner, a portly, cigar-smoking man in a yellow shirt, went into an apoplectic fit, turning red, cursing Chaouchi, and shadowboxing with an imaginary foe. The crowd grew silent, stunned by Chaouchi’s gaffe and the owner’s fit of rage.

The score, and the silence it left at the bar, held through the referee’s final whistle: Slovenia 1, Algeria 0. As the disheartened fans dispersed from the bar, their reactions varied. There was canned stoicism: “That’s football” and “That’s luck.” Others delved deeper, seeing a connection between their soccer team and their country: “That’s Algeria . . . lots of chances, no goal.”

They can’t finish. The popular consensus on Algeria’s match against Slovenia made me think of the skeletal cement structure of an unfinished hotel that dominates Oran’s skyline. When construction began in 1980, this five-star hotel was expected to usher in a new period of tourism and prosperity for Oran. Instead, funding dried up in the mid-1980s, and the long civil war turned public attention elsewhere. Today, the 20-floor concrete shell blocks the ocean views of the adjacent Ottoman-era Bey’s Palace. The city government and the original investors cannot agree about who should tear it down. The hotel reminds me of the situation of Algeria itself: a great dream, born of the impassioned enthusiasm of the Nationalist movement, and then left to wither in idle disputes. A skeletal present that blocks the view of the past.

The resurgence of Algerian nationalist feeling brought on by the World Cup is due, in no small part, to the violent road that the Algerian team traveled to qualify for it. Many countries fought battles on the soccer field to qualify, but Algeria might be the only country that went to war off the field for their place in the soccer spotlight. On November 12, 2009, the Algerian national team arrived in Cairo to play a qualifying match with Egypt. The Algerians needed a victory to go to the 32-team final tournament in South Africa; the Egyptian team needed to win by two goals to earn a rematch, or by three to knock the Algerians out in one game. That night, Egyptian fans intercepted and attacked the Algerian team bus as it headed to the hotel. The fans pelted the bus with bricks, stones, and debris, shattering its windows and injuring several players. When the Algerian team reached its hotel, the players were met by TV cameras, which showed that two of them were covered in blood. Rafik Saifi, the team philosopher, asked repeatedly: “Is this soccer? Is this soccer?” And then, referring to the supposed Arab brother­hood between Egypt and Algeria, Saifi said: “They say we’re brothers; well, we’re not brothers!”

With the cameras rolling, the indignant Algerian players took up a fierce bilingual chant: “1, 2, 3 . . . Viva l’Algérie.” In the background, Algerian women accompanying the team ululated in rhythm with the chant. The images of the bloodied Algerian players and their defiant chant went viral on YouTube. All over Algeria, the chant went up: “1, 2, 3 . . . Viva l’Algérie.” This battle cry has since spawned a small cottage industry, including an eponymous movie by popular Algerian comedian Mustapha Bilahoudoud, a catchy pop song that booms from car stereos on the days that the national team plays, and numerous flags with the transliteration: “Wan Too Thri . . . Viva l’Algérie.”

The stage was set for high drama at the Novem­ber 14 match, but Egypt scored after just two minutes and went on to win easily, 2–0. Afterward, riots broke out in the streets of Cairo and Algiers. In each city, businesses from the other country were looted and fans were beaten. The Egyptian and Algerian press exaggerated the extent of the damage: although no deaths were officially reported, newspapers spoke of fans be­ing burned alive by opposing fans, and women being stripped naked and raped.

Egypt’s victory triggered a deciding playoff game, which FIFA, soccer’s ruling body, scheduled for November 18 in Khartoum, Sudan—the only time in recent memory that Sudan has been chosen as a neutral site for conflict resolution. The match’s location was considered advantageous for Egypt, which is just to the north of Sudan. As a counter­balance, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika commandeered several civilian airplanes from Air Algeria to transport 12,000 Algerian fans, virtually free of charge, to Khartoum to watch the game. Algeria won the uninspiring match, 1–0, earning its ticket to South Africa. A new round of riots broke out in Egypt and Algeria, and the rift between the two countries intensified: both withdrew their ambassadors and temporarily cut off diplomatic ties.

On the night of November 18, Algerians took to the streets en masse with flags, homemade blowtorches, drums, and horns. Writing in the popular newspaper Le Quotidien d’Oran on December 3, Mohamed Mebtoul reflected the general mood by observing: “The victory was not only for sport, but for society.” Mebtoul’s colleague, Abdelkader Lakjaa, took the analysis one step further: “It is this spirit that made the war of liberation, with its cortege of 1.5 million martyrs, that made the Algeria that nationalized its hydrocarbons in 1971 . . . and finally, the Algeria that beat Oum Dounia [Egypt] in Khartoum.” In short, Lakjaa observed, “Algeria has become a country that wins.”

But Algeria’s flaccid performance against Slovenia put its country’s winning ways under the microscope. If Algeria couldn’t beat Slovenia, rated 25th in the world soccer standings, how was it supposed to beat its next opponent, England, rated 8th? The June 14 Compétition, Algeria’s leading soccer ­paper, painted a grim picture of national morale heading into the next match: “Everyone takes for granted that Algeria has already lost its coming match against England. But why this sentiment?” When, on the same day, Algeria’s coach said in a press conference that his team had “nothing to lose,” the Algerian press went berserk, even though Saadane meant to say that his team’s “underdog” mentality might help it to win against England. Two days later, El Watan, a leading independent daily news­paper, blasted Saadane in an article entitled, in English, “Yes, We Can’t”: “Saadane has warned us: We don’t have anything to lose against England. . . . What do you mean, we have nothing to lose? . . . This justification for the anticipation of a defeat translates the ‘loser’ mentality that the coach has refused to let go.” Thus, much was at stake in Algeria’s June 18 match against England, most pressingly the question: Is Algeria a nation of winners or losers?

The match with England fell on a Friday, normally a day of rest in Algeria, but at midday, the streets of Oran were teeming with activity. Car horns competed with the muez­zin’s call to prayer. Children played soccer in the deserted streets, using the drawn metallic shutters of closed shops as improvised goals. Outside my hotel, a group of three girls, about six years old, skipped around and sang the now-legendary chant: “1, 2, 3 . . . Viva l’Algérie!” Down at the front de mer, groups of young men drove by the cafés and ice-cream shops, waving flags and honking horns. Their car stereos blasted “Allez les Verts,” another pop hit written for the soccer team.

At 7:00 p.m., my friend Karim picked me up in a white 1988 Renault. The car’s gearshift, which jutted out from the dashboard, looked as flimsy as the Algerian defense. We drove to his neighborhood, Medioni, which is what they call a “quartier populaire” here—an urban working-class neighborhood. En route, we picked up Karim’s friends Abdenour and Abderzak, with whom he spoke excitedly in Berber. Medioni reminded me of the highway market towns you drive through on long road trips in North Africa. All of the buildings were low, and the pavement was thin, giving way to dust at the shoulder of the road. There was a lot of commerce: butcher shops, family-owned markets, and phone shops. Every block had at least one café, and every café was filled with spectators anxiously awaiting the soccer match. After circling Medioni, trying to find a place with available seats, we landed in a neighborhood café that was a far cry from Le Mediterranee. The café’s chestnut red walls and light blue tables gave its interior a bright, welcoming air. Its menu was simple: no alcohol, just coffee, soda, and water. No one at the café was drunk. The one thing that this place had in common with Le Mediterranee was the gender of its clientele: all male, ranging in age from around eight to 60. Presumably, their wives, daughters, and sisters watched the game at home, in the company of other women.

The first half of the match was tense. Every time Algeria touched the ball, energy pulsed through the crowd, eliciting shouts, whistles, applause, and groans. As in the previous match, Algeria did a nice job of controlling the ball, but they seemed to lose inspiration, or concentration, when they got close to the English goal. Nevertheless, I soon realized that Algeria wasn’t just holding its own against the mighty English; it was actually dominating the game. In the 43rd minute, with the two teams still locked in a tense tie, the TV broadcast cut off without warning. The screen went blank, and then a blue background appeared with small Koranic writing. A recording of the call to prayer started, accompanied by images of men doing ablutions outside a mosque and then entering to pray. We were watching the match on Algerian national television, which broadcasts the call to prayer five times a day. (Algerian TV started airing the call to prayer about 10 years ago, approximately when the Islamist parties became more powerful.) I had seen Algerian television interrupt normal programming before, but I was shocked that they would interrupt this match, to which the entire nation was glued.

People at the café groaned and then, with a sigh of resignation, got up, stretched their legs, and went outside to smoke cigarettes. After about three minutes, the call to prayer ended, and a newsbreak came on. Everyone at the café waited, expectantly, for news of the game. Instead, the leading story was about a meeting between President Bouteflika and a visiting EU dignitary. The crowd threw their hands up in disgust, and someone yelled, “Where is the match?” Eventually, someone changed the channel to TF1, French public television.

The second half began where the first one left off, with England and Algeria exchanging counterattacks. As the match plowed on, though, Algeria’s fitness problems emerged. Each time the Algerians arrived late to a tackle or let a ball ricochet out of bounds with a limp stab of their feet, it was easy to tell that they were not as fit as the English. When the referee blew the final whistle, sealing the 0–0 tie between England and Algeria, I didn’t know what to expect.  For a moment, the café was silent, and then, from somewhere far away, we heard the first horn, muffled as if through a piece of cloth. The street outside started to buzz with indiscernible movement and noise: footsteps, laughter, applause, car horns. I peeked outside and saw Karim, who had spent the last 20 minutes of the match there, too nervous to sit and watch. He was jogging back and forth over the same two or three yards of sidewalk, as if tethered to an invisible leash. He said, simply, “I am happy; I am very happy.” The city responded with a growing chorus of car horns.

We jumped into the beat-up Renault and started driving down Medioni’s main drag. Karim swerved back and forth in the road, honking his horn and blinking his lights, narrowly missing cars and motorcycles pulling the same maneuvers. Along the street, I saw people pouring out of stores and apartment buildings, everyone with a flag, a banner, a jersey, or a bullhorn in hand.

Karim and his friends were exuberant. “That was the best match of the World Cup!” Karim exclaimed. “That match,” he continued, “will go into the annals of the World Cup as one of the greatest games in history.” (Later that day, ESPN would describe England’s draw against Algeria as “dreadful.”) “It’s a victory,” Abdenour cried. “It’s a victory,” everyone shouted in unison.

We made our way down to Place El Bahia, where Algerian television and radio have their headquarters in Oran. This is where die-hard fans come to celebrate Algeria’s victories, right in front of the running cameras of Algerian television. By the time we arrived at the square, just 15 minutes after the game ended, there were already hundreds of supporters there—men and women, boys and girls. Algerian fans sang, danced, yelled, and brandished flags. They lit aerosol cans with cigarette lighters and pointed the makeshift torches into the sky. As firecrackers went off in all directions, cars circled, honking horns and blasting music. Cars and vans doubled as floats, serving as moving platforms for the drummers, dancers, and singers who pranced on top of them and entertained the crowd. Someone unfurled a huge Algerian flag, and a large group of teenagers formed a train to carry it through the crowd. It didn’t matter that Algeria would be out of the tournament five days later, stunned by a last-second goal by the United States. On the night of Algeria’s unexpected tie with England, there was still much to celebrate: for once, Algeria did not lose.

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