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In April 1958, a few months before the World Cup, two members of the French national team snuck across the border to Italy, and from there to Tunis. For a few days, no one knew where they were. Then they appeared at a press conference alongside other professional footballers who had also left, undetected, from France in the previous weeks. They had decided, they announced, to quit their current teams in order to create a new national team for the place of their birth: the French colony of Algeria.
Instead of playing for France in the World Cup that summer, Mustapha Zitouni and Rachid Mekloufi began touring the world with a team that, though unrecognized by FIFA, drew large crowds wherever they went. Before each game the flag of the Algerian revolution, and the anti-colonial anthem written by a jailed activist, asserted that despite France’s refusal to accept its independence, the nation of Algeria truly did exist. The football team became the best ambassador for the Front de Libération Nationale, which since 1954 had been fighting for the independence of Algeria, and by 1958 was intent on gaining support for their movement throughout the world.
So it was that Algeria’s first football team was born in a gesture of revolt. Fifty-six years later, the country’s team is headed to Brazil. And, surprisingly, two-thirds of its players today were born and raised in France. Nearly a third of the squad is made up of players who have represented France in the country’s youth squads. The choices of these players are far less openly political and those of their predecessors in 1958. Yet taken collectively the presence of so many French born and raised players on the Algerian team can tell us something not only about the state of football but also about the state of society in both France and Algeria.
Among the players who have chosen Algeria is the 22-year-old Saphir Sliti Taïder – a talented, quick, and observant defensive midfielder recently recruited to play for Inter Milan. Born in the small Pyrenean town of Castres, he came up through a series of French football academies, made his professional debut for Grenoble in 2010, and was called up to the French U-18 and U-19 squads, scoring three goals for Le Bleus in international competition. In a 2013 interview about choosing Algeria Taïder thanked French institutions for having helped form him as a player, but insisted that his heart belongs to two other countries: the Tunisia of his father and the Algeria of his mother. After being courted by both – his older brother plays for Tunisia – he ultimately opted for Algeria, and is on his way to Brazil this summer.
Many of his teammates have similar stories. Goalie Raïs M’Bohli – who shone at the 2010 World Cup during his team’s riveting game against the U.S. – was born in Paris in 1986 to a Congolese father and an Algerian mother. He played on the French U-16 and U-17 teams before opting for Algeria. Yacine Brahimi, born in 1990 in Paris, was trained at the youth academy of Paris Saint-Germain and the famed national academy at Clairefontaine, and played consistently on the French youth squads from 2005 to 2012 before opting to play for Algeria in 2013.
A generation ago, Zinedine Zidane, who led France to its 1998 World Cup victory, could have chosen to play for his parent’s Algeria too. He chose France, explaining it was an easy and natural decision. But the rules were different in Zidane’s time: FIFA didn’t allow players who had played on one country’s youth teams as teenagers to switch to another. The policy was changed before the 2010 World Cup: now players can switch national teams once in their career. Many players are taking advantage of the opportunity, but nowhere in such large numbers as those opting for Algeria.
Of course the choice of which national team to play for can be a very personal – and strategic – one. For players who think they are unlikely to be selected for the French national team, opting for another Country is one way to improve their chances of playing at the World Cup. The French-born Algerian players have not tended to suggest a political motivation for their choice: the way Taïder put it was that his heart belonged to the countries of his parents. None have openly declared that they reject France: Taïder expressed gratitude for the training he received in the country’s academies. They have not followed the example of the French-born and raised player Benoît Assou-Ekotto, has made it a point of pride to explain that he would never play for France rather than his father’s Cameroon.
Some within the French Football Federation, however, have come to see the number of French-born and -trained players opting for other national teams as a political problem. In 2010, a whistleblower at the French Football Federation recorded a conversation among high-level administrators (including then coach Laurent Blanc) in which they mused that it might be useful to have a quota system in place in youth academies in the country to decrease the number of “black and Arab” players. Given how critical players of North African, African and Caribbean background have been and still are to French football (Patrick Evra, Karim Benzema, and Mamadou Sakho will be key players for France in Brazil this summer) this was pretty startling, even slightly absurd. But there is a long history of people, including far right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen, complaining that the French team is too black and too Arab.
And maybe some of that, in turn, has influenced the choices of a new generation of footballers like Taïder, M’Bohli and Brahimi, creating a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. If players of immigrant background in France get the sense that they’re not particularly welcome, they may increasingly look to the homelands of their parents as they think about where to pursue their international careers. With the recent legislative victories of the Front National in France, the dream of a multi-racial Black-Blanc-Beur (black-white-Arab) French team serving as an example of successful integration seems more distant than ever.
Players of immigrant background have always been central to France’s teams, and they still are this year when the likes of Pogba, Evra, and Benzema form the core of the team. But now other European countries have caught up to France: Algeria’s first game in Brazil will be against Belgium, a team who’s success depends on players who are the children of migrants, like the phenomenal Romelu Lukaku, whose parents are from the Congo. At the World Cup, national flags will be everywhere, but many fans and players will have complex, multiple allegiances. When Algeria and Belgium play, the teams will be carrying a complex history of crossings that maps uneasily onto flags and borders. Perhaps, for a time, the pitch will become their real homeland.