The tendency to categorise and rate the footballing talents Africa has produced is something of a modern phenomenon. This is due in part to the perception that African players have been somewhat late to the party in terms of making an impact on a global stage. As such the majority of the ‘greatest African footballers’ lists are weighted greatly towards players of the mid- 90s onwards, give or take a dancing Cameroonian.
One player who is consistently overlooked is Mustapha Rabah Madjer. A player of unheralded finesse and technical ability on the pitch, only matched by his combative nature off it.
His footballing attributes led to him becoming not only Algeria’s greatest footballing export but also a symbol for a nation to latch onto as it searched for its identity.
Madjer was born in the costal city of Algiers in 1958. The city was at the epicentre of the Algerian independence movement, which sought to throw off the shackles of French colonialism. A bloody and vicious war was fought between the various factions and the French troops sent to maintain order – a war that resulted in Algerian independence and the fall of the 4th French republic.
Madjer’s family, being Muslims, had been prevented from holding jobs of higher office or gaining meaningful education under French rule. Prospects were just as limited in a shattered post-war economy. Madjer had first hand experience of poverty and the debilitating effect it could have on people’s lives. Such determination to escape it made for a potent mix for a young boy also blessed with such natural talents.
Rabah’s first step in his footballing career was with NA Hussein Dey. A series of impressive performances across a spectrum of attacking positions Madjer soon gained domestic plaudits. He was likened to Johan Cruyff, a player whom Madjer sited as an inspiration in his formative years.
Madjer was incredibly patriotic, there is no one who is born into such nationalistic melting pots that isn’t. And so it was with great pride that he pulled on the national jersey in time for the 1980 Cup of Nations. After a twelve year absence ‘The Desert Eagles’ made the final before being dispatched by hosts Nigeria. They returned home to a hero’s welcome and a banquet at the government palaces.
Algeria’s footballing star was on the rise. The domestic footballing authorities in an attempt to revitalise the domestic game had legislated that no player under 25 could play outside of Algeria. Not only did it improve the standard of the league system, it also allowed for young Madjer to bond with his national team peers on a weekly basis. Algeria would bear the fruit of their policy two years later in Spain.
Under the floodlights of the Estadio El Molinón on a balmy Gijón night the Algerian’s shocked the assembled press and fans around the world as they triumphed over the European champions West Germany.
Madjer had a direct part to play, finishing off a sweeping counter attack to open the scoring. Ultimately the contriving between the Germans and Austria cost Algeria the chance to become the first African team to reach the knockout stage.
Interest of Europe’s elite leagues had been piqued. It was clear to the 24-year-old that his footballing career lay at a higher standard. But the stumbling block of Algeria’s ‘under 25’ rule seemingly block any possible move to the continent. Madjer was not one to bow down to authority. His childhoods had taught him to question, and even openly disregard authority. He did not feel this was at odds with his fierce nationalism, in fact he felt he was a better Algerian for it.
Madjer gave the FA an ultimatum – allow me to leave or I will never play for the country again. The prospect of loosing such a key part of a promising international set up was enough to grant Madjer his move. However the drawn-out saga had put off Europe’s bigger fish and thus limited his options to France where he spent 1 ½ years before his ascension continued anew.
Madjer’s ability had not gone unnoticed by FC Porto’s new coach Artur Jorge whilst the latter studied coaching in Leipzig. He promptly added Madjer to his side. Madjer’s three seasons at Estádio do Dragão brought levels of success and celebrity that the boy from Algiers was unaccustomed to.
His style and finesse made him a fan favourite and the adulation from the Portistas complimented his newly earned championship medals. Little did he know his place in football folklore would be waiting around the next corner.
Madjer had an impressive return of 29 goals in 50 appearances for FC Porto between 1985 and 88. But none of his goals stick in the memory as the one scored in the 77th minute of the 1987 European Cup Final in Vienna.
With Bayern leading a hopeful ball was sent towards the Porto forward line. It was flicked on to Brazilian substitute Juary who in turn cut it back across the goalmouth. Deflected on its way through the ball seemingly had evaded everyone.
Then in a moment of equal measure brilliance and audacity Madjer, with his back straight and facing away from the goal, flicked the ball with his heel into the German’s net. The Bayern defenders stood in shocked disbelief as Azuis e brancos wheeled away to celebrate.
Things went from good to the surreal for Madjer and the Portistas four minutes later went Juary went set up for the winner by the Algerian. FC Porto were European champions for the first time, and Bayern were shell-shocked. Critics and fans lauded the goals technique and the ‘cojones’ to attempt it in such a vital game.
In his home city fans took to the street in celebration and designated the finish the footwork of God himself – “Allah’s back heel”. Pelé went as far to christen it nearly “the greatest goal I have ever seen” if it wasn’t for the fact Madjer glanced back as the ball crossed the line.
Seven months later FC Porto were world champions. In the snow and fog of Tokyo Madjer produced a man of the match performance against C.A. Peñarol of Uruguay. His stellar year was rounded off when he won the Ballon D’or Africain, scoring more than twice the number of votes than 2nd placed Youssouf Fofana.
Madjer’s crowing glory of this period was in 1990 when he captained The Desert Eagles to their sole African cup of Nations trophy. By beating Nigeria by a solitary goal in the final the team’s victory signalled celebrations in Algeria the like of which had not been seen since they had over thrown colonialism some thirty years beforehand.
That international glory convinced Madjer to take up the reigns of management for his nation. However his legendary playing form could not be translated into managerial success. Failure to qualify for USA 1994 coupled with Madjer’s distain for authority saw him quit in favour of youth development with Porto.
He returned to the national team in 2002 yet a poor world cup and the resumption of old hostilities with those in the upper echelons saw Madjer vow never to return. His outspoken criticism of his country’s footballing infrastructure and the nepotism that exists in the power structure has made him a pariah to the establishment. But such is the impact of his playing career it has done little to sully his reputation with the masses – in fact has increased his popularity.
In semi-retirement Madjer splits his time between punditry- where he is as vocal and singled minded as ever on the Algerian F.A’s policys and working on UNICEF projects throughout the region.
To this day Mustapha Rabah Madjer remains a legend of Porto, a hero of Algeria and one of the most gifted footballers to come from the African continent.
By Charlie Pulling
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona