“God-willing, they will return; Those days of the past; We’ll light a (celebratory) candle; This is the year of promotion”
MO Constantine chant
Constantine, the eastern capital of Algeria, is situated atop two steep plateaus some eighty kilometres inland of the Mediterranean coast. Seven suspended bridges run over and above the menacing gorge below, connecting the two crags at various points. During the colonial era, Constantine was a roughly divided city. One plateau was generally reserved for Europeans and the other for the indigenous.
In a reflective letter addressed to everyone and no one, my paternal grandfather recounts how he managed to find work in Sidi Mabrouk, then a neighbourhood exclusive to European police families in Constantine.
“Sidi Mabrouk was called ‘La Cité de Police’. In 1944, I obtained work as a secretary at the prefecture. At the time, that was exceptional for an non-naturalized indigenous man.”
He rented a room at my would-be grandmother’s place. Her father and brother were police officers, which is, arguably, even more exceptional. There were only a handful of Arab police officers in Sidi Mabrouk’s 17th precinct. Despite, or, maybe, in spite of its police presence, La Cité de Police was targeted during the War of Independence.
My grandfather once related how the Martyr Mohamed Hamlaoui carried out attacks in Sidi Mabrouk. “He drove them crazy. Almost every morning we heard ‘taf, taf, taf’, then Mr. Hamlaoui scurrying away. Oh, he wreaked havoc. The police would yell ‘Attrapez-le! Mais, attrapez-le, le salopard!’”
Hamlaoui was assassinated before Algeria gained its independence. French Intelligence finally wrested information on his whereabouts. On the day, Hamlaoui hid in the Arab quarters, downtown, in a hotel off of la Rue de France (now la Rue Hamlaoui). In the dead of the evening, the lobby was hastily evacuated and explosives were planted. Hamlaoui was not afforded one last chance to escape.
But his legacy still marks the City of Bridges. Just under Sidi Mabrouk, a rundown stadium built in the 1970s has a seating capacity of 40 000. Like most state-owned institutions, it was re-named after a martyr or an important date in the revolution. The stadium is Constantine’s and has been named Stade Chahid Hamlaoui (Martyr Hamlaoui Stadium).
Stade Hamlaoui is home to both of Constantine’s football clubs: Mouloudia Olympique de Constantine, also known as MO Constantine, or MOC; and Club Sportif Constantinois, CS Constantine, or CSC.
Both clubs are proud of their storied histories, yet they find themselves in antipodal positions. CSC is one of Algeria’s populist clubs, nearly selling out every home match. Thousands of travelling support caravan to away matches every other week. CSC supporters call themselves ‘sanafir’ and insist their club is the doyen of Algerian football, as it was established in 1898.
More objective analysis traces the club’s foundation to 1926, making it the second oldest club in Algeria after Mouloudia Club of Algiers, which was founded in 1921. MO Constantine plays in Algeria’s third division. The club was founded at the behest of Abdelhamid Ben Badis in the early 1940s. Ben Badis spurred a Salafist resistance movement in the 1940s and 1950s, convincing a consensus of scholars to oppose French colonization, and he remains Algeria’s greatest Islamic intellectual. For him, sport was another means of resistance, and MOC fans still sing loudly about inheriting his legacy.
The founding of Muslim sporting associations was stringently opposed by a repressive French regime. Such clubs were initially outlawed, but as Muslim clubs persisted, they were permitted to operate albeit under suffocating conditions.
In late January, MOC hosted IMF Village Moussa, in the Algerian third division. I watched the match with Mehdi Saci, an economics student who now lives in Sidi Mabrouk and doesn’t miss a match. Mehdi’s grandfather, Rabah, was president of the club in the 1990s, so the fidelity to MOC runs in his veins.
“Look, CSC is for kids. If you watch one of their matches, you’ll be exposed to blasphemy, and indecent cussing. They all have terrible haircuts, and you’ll be lucky to go home with your cell phone and wallet.” Mehdi told me, with an air of gravitas.
Having arrived early, we spent twenty minutes traipsing about the concourse, buying loose cigarettes, club merchandise, peanuts, and mint tea. At kick-off Mehdi was dismayed by the meagre turnout of his fellow supporters. An anaemic two thousand were sat in the East Stand, the only part of the stadium that is covered.
Half of those in attendance seemed eligible pensioners, which is indicative of the club’s past success. MOC’s golden era was in the 1970’s when top goalscorer Rabah Gamouh struck fear into defences across the Mitidja plains. My father, and my aforementioned grandfather were MOC-istes – as the supporters have been dubbed – and those in the stands for the Village Moussa match might have been childhood friends.
That air of familiarity transcended the stands and permeated onto the pitch. Before kick-off Mehdi called out to four or five players. He was on a first-name basis with them. “Come on, lads. Mourad, let’s go, honour us. Ayoub, this is your match!”
Ayoub Ferhat is MOC’s playmaker. “If this boy was serious, he would be in Equatorial Guinea with the national team right now.” Mehdi whispered to me as both sides lined up in a traditional 4-3-3. “He played with the national team at the U17 level, but now he drinks and has a potbelly.” I took a good look at the tubby Ferhat, skeptical of Mehdi’s supposition, but as soon as he got on the ball, there was no doubting his inherent quality. MOC ran out 4-0 winners, and the three points moved them into second place.
Algeria’s third division is split into three regions: the western division, the central division, and the eastern division, which MOC played in. The champions of each region were promoted into Ligue 2. JSM Skikda sat atop the eastern division, four points ahead of MO Constantine.
MO Constantine’s colours – blue and white – denote the prime qualities of their proxy founder, Ben Badis. White symbolizes peace and blue represents knowledge. JSM Skikda’s colours, however, reflect a more macabre past.
On the 20th of August, 1955, tens of thousands of young Algerian men were indiscriminately slaughtered in reaction to a revolutionary insurgence. Adolescents were rounded up in the street and taken to their deaths. The bloody pogrom still pains those who remember it.
My maternal grandfather was never a revolutionary. In those days he worked as a truck driver, shuttling fruit from Skikda to Constantine. A sense of premonition saved his life. As tensions escalated, he parked his truck in a vacant garage and hid for three days and two nights. When it was safe to return home, he collapsed in our living room. My grandmother spoon-fed him water for the first few hours, as his parched lips could scarcely part.
Those without a hiding place were carted to Skikda’s Stade Municipal and were executed by firing squads; their lifeless remains were interred under the pitch. After independence, Stade Municipal was renamed Stade 20 Aout, 1955.
JSM Skikda don black and white kits. White is for peace and black to mourn the lives of those taken on that 20th of August.
Three plaques greet visitors entering Stade 20 Aout’s campus. The largest of the three has Qur’anic calligraphy decoratively inscribed on it. The verse reads: “And do not think of those killed in the way of God as dead. Nay, they are alive, with their Lord, receiving provision.” The smallest is a black and gold panel, eulogizing the martyrs of the 20th of August. The region’s foremost martyr, Zighoud Youcef, stands between the two. Curiously, he is almost always depicted sporting a cowboy hat.
A modest bowl-shaped stadium sits behind the three plaques. Under its right hip, tucked away, stands an ancient bulldozer. It was one of several diggers used to pile bodies on top of one another 61 years ago.
I first encountered the bulldozer in the summer of 2012. Anger and confusion coursed through my veins. How could authorities have preserved such a murderous memento? This was the same machine that threatened my grandfather’s, and, ergo, my existence on the 20th of August, 1955. I spent twenty minutes examining the bulldozer. Chips of eggshell paint were peeling off of the withering structure.
Upon further examination, I noticed that all visitors approached from the rear, so that the tractor, almost ashamedly, faced away, as if it couldn’t face Skikda’s natives. Personifying an inanimate object seems silly, but, in retrospect, I believe the only way I could accept the backhoe sitting just metres away from two-thousand bodies it helped buried under Stade 20 Aout’s playing surface, was by ascribing it a sense of penitence.
Some forty days after their impressive victory against Village Moussa, MOC made the trip to Skikda, with the point gap still at four. In the 93rd minute of play, Najib Amrous scored a header to send JSM Skikda seven points clear. Skikda have now all but sealed their promotion, but the struggle to rediscover former glory for the ‘children of Ben Badis’ continues.
I telephoned Mehdi after learning of MOC’s defeat and could feel defeat in his voice. ‘We were better on the day, but it was always going to be difficult winning in Skikda. They’re unbeatable at home.’ Before hanging up, Mehdi mustered up some positivity. “Even if we aren’t promoted this year, we’ll go up sooner or later. MOC is too big to play in the third division, it isn’t where we belong.’
Mehdi’s words prove that in Algeria, historic, political, and social contexts guide club values and expectations, and overshadow the sporting dimensions of the game. Twenty-two athletes kicking a ball around merely honour, meet, or fail to live up to expectations. Though it remains an old and hackneyed cliché, football in Algeria really is ‘more than just a game’.
By Maher Mezahi
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona