In April 1958, Rachid Mekhloufi stood on the brink of international superstardom. Having scored 25 goals in thirty games to help Saint-Étienne win their first Championnat the year before, Mekhloufi was about to win his fifth France cap in a friendly against Switzerland, with coach Paul Nicolas including him in the forty-man pre-selection for Les Bleus’ highly fancied World Cup squad.
Then the news broke: Mekhloufi would not be in Paris for the match; nor would Monaco’s Mustapha Zitouni, expected to be the defensive cornerstone of Nicolas’s World Cup team. After a rigorously planned covert operation, Mekhloufi, Zitouni and seven other Algerian-born footballers playing in France had left via Switzerland for Tunis, where they had established a team to represent the Front Libération Nationale (FLN), who were fighting a bitter war with France.
In 1954, using the World Cup as cover to travel unnoticed, the FLN had been founded in Switzerland, hoping to end over one hundred years of colonial rule in Algeria, where one million Europeans lived alongside nine million Arabic or Berber Muslims. Soon after the infuriatingly triumphant French celebrations for the centenary of the invasion in 1930, Algeria’s Muslims adopted football as their main sport: it was to become a prominent weapon in the struggle for independence.
The foundations for an anti-imperialist culture had already been laid: in 1913, two decades after football arrived in Algeria, FC Musulman de Mascara were founded as the first indigenous Islamic side, and by the 1920s, one fifth of the territory’s clubs were explicitly Muslim. Although they remained politically autonomous, losing colonial subsidies if they did not, many celebrated Islamic heritage – such as Mouloudia CA, formed in 1921 and named after the prophet Mohammed.
With political groups heavily regulated, football offered spaces where anti-colonial colours could be worn openly – Mouloudia and other teams played in green and red, which had strong Islamic connotations. With crowds segregated by ethnicity and class, Algerian stadia were fractious places. The tension was heightened by the Native Affairs unit monitoring clubs’ links with political organisations, and laws introduced in 1928 stating that each team must have at least three European players – increased to five in 1935. In particular, the Djidjelli Sports Club regularly hosted inter-ethnic clashes. These intensified when football resumed after the Second World War, with knife fights and attacks on police being commonplace, with a player killed on the pitch during a riot.
Nationalism and football became ever more intertwined. By the mid-1930s, Parti du people algérien founder Messali Hadj was staging meetings in packed stadia, and after the war, Ahmed Ben Balla, who played for Marseille in a 9-0 win over Antibes in April 1940, became a leader of the FLN, which organised the various anti-colonial groups into something resembling a provisional government. After Ferhat Abbas called for independence in Sétif in May 1945, the French authorities brutally repressed nationalist activity across Algeria, killing an estimated 20,000-30,000 people. In an effort to diffuse the situation, the government allowed Algerian subjects to become French citizens, granting parliamentary representation and encouraging its football clubs to play in the Coupe de France – even after the FLN had attacked targets in Algiers, sparking the Franco-Algerian War.
On 4 February 1957, the amateur team for FLN-supporting Algerian settlers, Sporting Club Universitaire d’El Biar caused a major cup shock, beating Stade de Reims – who had reached the European Cup final the previous season and provided the backbone of Batteux’s World Cup side. Six days later, as they faced Racing Universitaire Algérois, bombs exploded in their stands, killing eight people. El Biar lost to Lille in the Coupe quarter-final: the final was overshadowed by FLN member Mohamed Ben Sadok’s assassination of anti-independence deputy Ali Chekkal as he watched the game.
Former Valenciennes and Bordeaux player Mohamed Boumezrag had seen a North African selection beat France 3-0 in a benefit match for victims of the Orléansville (now Ech-Cheliff) earthquake in November 1954 – the same month that the FLN’s military wing had attacked Algiers. Believing that a successful team would radically further the FLN’s cause, Boumezrag and Mokhtar Arribi, trainer of southern French side Avignon, began recruiting leading Algerian footballers. First, the FLN secured Monaco’s Abdelaziz Ben Tifour, who had represented France in the 1954 World Cup, and ex-Marseille goalkeeper Abderrahmane Ibrir, who won six French caps in 1949-1950.
Ibrir came out of retirement; his team-mates, still playing in France had much more to lose, being well paid and popular in the cities they represented. Many had families in the metropole; some were doing military service at the Battalion de Joinville (created especially for athletes) and would be considered deserters if they fled. Mekhloufi, whose defection particularly angered the authorities, was sentenced to ten years in absentia, having helped France win the World Military Games football tournament in 1957.
On 15 April 1958, sports paper L’Équipe announced that nine of the 53 Algerians playing in France had disappeared, writing that ‘The French team remains, even if the word ‘France’ takes on a more narrow meaning’. Zitouni, who had been offered a transfer to Real Madrid after a brilliant match for France against Spain in March 1958, wanted to leave after the World Cup: he was ready to give up his life in l’Hexagone, but reluctant to miss out on the game’s biggest stage. Boumezrag persuaded Zitouni that leaving beforehand would make far more impact – realising that “history had caught up with [him]”, Zitouni accepted the invitation and prepared to leave.
Gradually, other players joined. Two were arrested as they tried to leave France, one being imprisoned for a year. Once they had a team in Tunis, the FLN issued a press release stating that they were taking the struggle for Algerian independence to the pitch, and arranged fixtures. The players stressed that they were not ‘anti-French’, with several rooting for France, who reached the last four of the World Cup, losing 5-2 to Brazil – Les Bleus stayed in touch with Zitouni, sending him a postcard from Sweden signed by the entire squad.
The French Football Federation were less forgiving, asking FIFA to expel any team who played the FLN side. This proved impossible: the FLN staged 91 matches, all preceded by the Algerian national anthem, mainly against teams from Islamic nations in North Africa and the Middle East, and Communist states in Asia and Europe. The latter were safe from FIFA sanctions, given their influence and the potential consequences of suspending them, and the FLN’s exuberant attacking style and impressive defensive organisation won them many plaudits in the Eastern Bloc and beyond.
As the situation in Algeria worsened, following the dissolution of the Fourth Republic in May 1958 and the return of Charles de Gaulle as French President, the FLN team’s phenomenal results meant its significance could not be ignored. Over four years, the FLN won 65 times, beating Yugoslavia 6-1, scoring eight without reply against Morocco and winning against Czechoslovakia. In late 1959, the FLN toured North Vietnam, a nation that had recently won independence from France, before going to China. They stopped in Germany en route to Algeria, but FIFA intervention prevented the FLN from testing themselves against the 1954 World Cup winners.
By then, de Gaulle had begun negotiations with the FLN’s political wing, and the war – one of the longest and bloodiest decolonisation battles – ended on 5 July 1962 with Algeria being granted full independence. With an official national side swiftly formed, playing in green, red and white, the FLN team was disbanded: several players retired, some joined clubs in their homeland and others returned to France.
Rachid Mekhloufi went back to Saint-Étienne via Swiss club Servette. His status was ambiguous: admired by the Algerian public for his national service but disdained by its socialist rulers for his professionalism, Mekhloufi was hated by some in France for his defection but loved by the majority for returning. Les Verts had missed their skilful playmaker: Mekhloufi inspired them to their second title in 1964, and was integral to two further championships in 1967 and 1968. His final Saint-Étienne game was the 1968 Coupe de France final, scoring twice as ASSE won 2-1. Presenting Saint-Étienne captain Mekhloufi with his winners’ medal, de Gaulle told him that ‘La France, c’est vous’.
After winning 11 Algerian caps, Mekhloufi had three spells as national coach, co-managing the team at their first World Cup in 1982. They famously beat West Germany 2-1, with Algeria-based Lakhdar Belloumi making his name with the winning goal, but collusion between the Germans and Austria meant that Algeria were eliminated in the first round. Sixteen years later, Zinedine Zidane, born in Marseille to Algerian parents, became a national hero in France and Algeria after leading Les Bleus to World Cup victory. Algeria did not play France until October 2001: the friendly was abandoned when Algerian supporters, mainly French-born and raised in France’s deprived banlieue estates, invaded the pitch. For all the efforts of Mekhloufi and his team-mates, not to mention Zidane, the Franco-Algerian tensions were far from resolved.
By Juliet Jacques
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona