Within minutes of Algeria winning its place in the second round of the Brazil World Cup, head coach Vahid Halilihodzic told reporters: “You should know that, in Algeria, people are still talking about what happened in 1982.” The team that stands between Algeria and a place in the quarterfinals in Monday’s showdown is Germany, and although none of his current players was even born in 1982, all have grown up aware of that year as the most significant in the North African country's soccer history.
The reason for 1982’s iconic status was the ‘match of shame’ at that year’s World Cup in Spain — a carefully staged 1-0 West Germany win against Austria in the last match of Group B that enabled both European teams to progress at the expense of Algeria. After West Germany had taken a 1-0 lead that enabled that outcome, neither team showed any ambition to alter the scoreline.
Algerian football has nursed a sense of injustice ever since.
The 1982 World Cup had been the showcase for the an often brilliant side, led by players like Lakhdar Belloumi and Rabah Madjer, the only Algerians to have won the prestigious African Footballer of the Year prize. Their opening match against Germany, facing one of the tournament’s favorites in Algeria’s debut at soccer’s greatest event, remains the high point in Les Fennecs’ history.
“We wanted to show ourselves off in these games and all the players were determined to be in the line-up,” remembers Salah Assad, a skillful winger, speaking from his home in Algiers. “We knew we had good players who would not necessarily be in the side, and by the time the day of the match arrived, we knew we would have a lot of support. Algerians had travelled to Spain, and we had Africa and the Arab-speaking world behind us as well as the many Maghreb people who live in Spain. Once the match began, we saw clearly the Spanish were with us too.”
In Gijon’s Molinon stadium, Algeria outsmarted West Germany to win 2-1, a result regarded as one of the World Cup’s great shocks. Across the Maghreb region, it was also celebrated as a watershed. In previous tournaments, Morocco and Tunisia had both previously achieved encouraging results against West Germany. In 1970, when Morocco became the first African country, post World War II, to play at the tournament, they took the lead against West Germany, and held it for 35 minutes, losing 2-1 only thanks a German goal 12 minutes from full-time. In 1978, Tunisia held West Germany, then reigning champions, to a 0-0 draw. They finished only a point apart in the group phase, West Germany progressing, Tunisia eliminated.
In Spain, greater damage had been inflicted on West Germany. But Algeria lost their next match, to Austria, and West Germany defeated Chile, to leave the Germans and North Africans on the same number of points in second and third positions in a mini-league from which the top two would go through to the next round.
Behind the scenes, as Assad remembers, tensions had developed, too. Algeria's players felt payments promised them by the Algerian Football Federation had not been honored. Their brilliant individual performances had also made several of them targets for transfer to glamorous European clubs, although they were bound by a law that prevented them leaving Algerian clubs until age 28. “That felt to some of us like we were being denied a dream,” said Assad, who later in his career played for Paris Saint-Germain.
What disturbed Algeria most, however, was the scheduling of the final group matches. Algeria were slated to play Chile a full day before West Germany took on Austria. That gave the European teams a significant advantage: They would go into their match knowing precisely what result they required, based on the outcome of Algeria versus Chile. In the event, Assad scored twice, rapidly, as Algeria raced to a 3-0 lead; Chile recovered to 3-2, which meant, on the basis of the goal-difference tie-breaker, Germany needed to win by any margin against Austria, but knew that a victory by just one or two goals would ensure Austria joined them the next round.
The surreal nature of that West Germany-Austria match, in which West Germany scored early and then for long periods the ball was passed inconsequentially between players of both teams, was widely condemned. Algerians in the stadium waved Spanish peseta banknotes at the players, to suggest a corrupted contest, engineered for a mutually convenient result. The West German national broadcaster called the game, “the most shameful day in the history of our Football Federation.”
That game changed the way FIFA organized tournament: Since 1982, all matches that decide final places in the group stage are played simultaneously. It was too late for the 1982 Algerians, though even at the time, their players had anticipated disappointment. “We knew it was a likely outcome, that Austria and Germany would get the result they both needed,” said Assad. “In fact, some players, instead of watching that match, just went out shopping. We expected to be leaving the tournament. We should have done our part of the work, with a better performance against Austria, and more goals against Chile.”
Mohammed Maouche, a member of Les Fennecs’ coaching staff at the time, points out: “Austria and Germany are neighboring countries. Who’s to say that in the same circumstances, Algeria and Tunisia would not also play out the result they needed? The fraternity between Maghreb nations is strong.”
At World Cups, that fraternity is often seen in the united support across the region for whichever team from the Maghreb advances furthest. When, in 1986, Morocco set a new benchmark for Africa at World Cup by reaching the second round, their success was celebrated across North Africa. Their bad luck was to meet — once again — West Germany, at the last-16 stage. Typically, the contest would be agonizingly close. After 88 minutes the teams were tied, at 0-0. West Germany then scored with a free-kick. The Maghreb adventure was over, ended by German opposition. Another chapter in the long saga will be written in Porto Alegre on Monday.