The Algerian football team has become the pride of a nation in need of good news following five months of weekly protests prompted by former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika planning to run for a fifth term.
For the first time in 29 years, Algeria will play in its third Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) final this Friday after beating Nigeria 2-1 to secure a spot against Senegal.
Algerian supporters from London to Doha erupted as Algerian winger Riyad Mahrez belted the ball into the back of the net in the 94th and final minute of extra time. In France, Bastille day was marked by hundreds of Algeria supporters in cars and in the streets celebrating – much to the anger of far-right figures who made their sentiments clear.
The success of the Algerian national team at the tournament hosted by Egypt has coincided with the country’s weekly protests over the last five months since former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced his intention to run for a fifth term. Despite his resignation in April, the popular movement (Hirak) against the Bouteflika clan and the system of power shows no signs of relenting and has remained strong in the face of growing repressive measures adopted by army Chief of Staff Ahmed Gaid Salah intended to quell the large turnouts every Tuesday and Friday.
The Algerian football scene is no stranger to political expression. The ultras of some of Algeria’s leading football clubs have been credited with enriching the Hirak with their slogans and songs. Travelling fans have brought the same revolutionary spirit with them to Egypt’s stadiums and streets, with some bearing the brunt of the repressive measures. For carrying a sign with one of the Hirak’s staple slogans, a supporter was deported from Egypt. Upon his return, he was handed a year-long prison sentence before being sent to El Harrach prison in Algeria, whose detainees include former prime ministers Ahmed Ouyahia and Abdelmalek Sellal.
Fans have also not responded favourably to the military aircraft and civilian planes offered by the state and military to transport hundreds of fans to the AFCON games with subsidised tickets to chant pro-government slogans. In response, videos have been uploaded online showing fans singing songs and chanting against the system, making it clear that strategies of distraction will no longer manipulate their national pride.
Such strategies were adopted in 2009 with Algeria’s matches against Egypt at a time when Bouteflika was looking to secure his unconstitutional third term in office. The euphoria and heightened national pride, which held the country in breathless excitement for weeks during Algeria’s successful 2014 World Cup appearance, was also used to the regime’s advantage as a distraction to Algerians’ frustrations at the collapse of oil prices and the incompetence of a wheelchair-bound president who had not addressed his people in two years.
The initial fear that the team of Djamel Belmadi, the national coach, would divert Algerians from their revolutionary objective was put to rest when it became clear from the onset of the competition that Algerians see both goals as the same.
One of the demands of the Hirak is for article seven of the Constitution, which stipulates that sovereignty lies with the people alone, which should form the basis of any political solution. Mahrez, who scored the winning goal, wears a number seven jersey. A coincidence? Algerians don’t seem to think so.
The national team was also seen celebrating its win by singing a popular song dedicated to the people’s movement. It may not be an explicit endorsement but has no doubt sent a clear message that the people come first. As musician Amazigh Kateb wrote: “Playing for a people in revolt is a much greater burden than all the cups combined.”
Much to the inconvenience of Algeria’s shadowy decision-makers, called Le Pouvoir, the final also happens to fall on the 22nd Friday of planned protests; a face-off not only against Senegal but also against the figure of Gaid Salah viewed as one of the main obstacles to the democratic aspirations of the Hirak.
Algerians’ pride in their team is also due to Belmadi’s success this tournament, despite not being everyone’s first choice in replacing the deeply unpopular Rabah Madjer, linked to the “gangs” of the country’s corrupt who are now facing a cleanse at the hands of Gaid Salah.
According to Walid Ziani, a journalist with Algerian football news website DZFoot, Belmadi is a coach who “finally gave marginalised home-grown talents like Youcef Belaili and Djamel Benlamri a chance on this national team”. Ziani said: “This change in philosophy is in large part thanks to the arrival of Kheiredine Zetchi at the helm of the FA, he has invested in domestic football and has given home-grown players an equal opportunity to play for their country.”
The unity of the team, comprised of both local and players raised abroad, represents Algerians the world over, many of whom were not born the last time Algeria lifted the trophy, and who, for the first time, are experiencing a weekly revolutionary spirit once confined to the history books by those believed to have ‘stolen’ the country’s independence.
“Algeria has only ever reached the final of the African Cup on two previous occasions, with the last final coming 29 years ago – Algeria’s only Africa Cup title,” Ziani explained.
Whatever happens on Friday, either outcome can be viewed as a victory for Algerians. Lose, they’ve been represented by a team who played with heart and who have done the country proud. Win, and success on the pitch will be an unprecedented morale-boost for the nation whose people have an unquenchable appetite to see their country succeed in many ways, starting with being able to select a head of state of their choice.
“Algeria’s success at Egypt has fuelled the flames of the protests back home,” said Ziani. “A win in the final could be the tipping point in the people’s fight to overthrow the government.” The ‘beautiful game’ proving once again how it is so much more than just a game.