Algeria is not a country that has had much to celebrate recently. In the 1990s, the Algerian government’s refusal to accept an imminent Islamist victory in national elections prompted a savage conflict between the ruling FLN and an array of Islamist groups.
An estimated 150, 000 Algerians died in a war of massacres and counter-massacres, state-sponsored ‘disappearances’ and extra-judicial killings that traumatized Algerian society, which the government eventually won, with the tacit support of an ‘international community’ that was more concerned with the flow of gas than it was with democracy, legality or human rights.
Since then the mafia-like structures that Algerians call ‘le pouvoir’ have retained their deathly grip at the upper echelons of Algerian society, and the terrible violence of the 1990s has largely left Algeria untouched by the ‘Arab spring’, under the rule of the sclerotic Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a politician who has long since passed his sell-by date and has ruled the country for 15 years.
In April the wheel-chair bound Bouteflika was re-elected with more than 80 percent of the vote – a majority that many Algerians regard as a government-managed fiction, but Bouteflika is the system’s man, and Western governments see him as a guarantor of ‘stability’ – which means Algerian oil and gas and Algerian cooperation in counter-terrorism. Meanwhile more than 50 percent of Algerians in the 16 to 29 age group are unemployed, and some 23 percent of the population live below the poverty line.
It would be ridiculous to assume that a football tournament can compensate for such events. But the magnifcent performance of the Algerian football team has nevertheless provided millions of Algerians with a source of national pride for the first time in many years.
Against South Korea they put on a thrilling display of attacking football, winning 4-2 in one of the classic matches of the tournament. Against Germany, the country that once contrived with Austria to put them out of the 1982 world cup in Spain at Gijon, ‘Les Fennecs’ – the Fennec Foxes, were equally fluent, determined and occasionally dazzling, and at times threatened to run the torpid Germans ragged. Had they actually finished their moves and taken their chances, they might have pulled off an epic victory and gone into the quarter finals.
In the event they couldn’t do this, but they nevertheless warmed the hearts of many of their countrymen, both in Algeria and France, and millions who watched them. And now, in a sport dominated at a professional level by overpaid egocentric millionaires who make more money in a week than some people make in an entire lifetime, the national team has taken the remarkable decision to donate all its $9 million prize money to ‘the people of Gaza’.
This decision was announced by Algerian striker Islam Slimani, who declared of the Gazans ‘ They need it more than us.’
Compare this to the squalid and mean-spirited attempts by Marine Le Pen’s Front National to impose a French version of the Tebbit ‘cricket test’, by condemning Algerian support for their team in France as a symptom of ‘immigration failure.’ Or the ban on ‘ostentatious’ foreign flags imposed by the Nice municipality when Algeria were playing. Or the vile killings of world cup spectators by Boko Haram and al-Shabaab who have decided that watching and playing football is ‘against Islam.’
No wonder thousands of their countrymen celebrated their return. Naturally the politicians that so many Algerians despise have attempted to benefit from their popularity, some of whom turned up to meet them at the airport. In addition Algerian state television has broadcast a special programme about them called ‘ Thank you heroes.’
No doubt there are many Algerian policians who would like the population to think about football rather than more pressing matters. Such manipulation is only to be expected, and cannot detract from the Algerian team’s beautiful gesture. The team played as Algerians and also as Muslims. Their donation is an act of pan-Arab and pan-Islamic soldidarity that carries the echo of Algeria’s more heroic period as a beacon of decolonisation and Third Worldism in the 1960s.
But it is also a simple gesture of humanity, in a world where such gestures are conspicuously absent. And for that reason we should celebrate it too, and be glad that even in these dark times, a team of footballers has done something that is unselfish, splendid, and really quite noble.