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The Secret History behind the Algerian – German World Cup Duel

By Mathilde von Bülow, Guest Author

An epic World Cup encounter between Germany and Algeria in Brazil’s Porto Alegre traces its roots to Algeria’s resistance to French colonialism and a secret history of Algerian-German football relations that helped the North Africans achieve independence.

For Algerians, the match in which they were knocked out of the 2014 World Cup also was an opportunity to replay a World Cup game of 32 years ago that was widely seen to have been fixed by Germany and Austria. Austria was accused of deliberately playing a 1:0 score line against Germany in a successful bid to ensure that the two teams progressed to the next round at Algeria’s expense.

It dashed Algerian hopes and expectations at a time that the country celebrated the twentieth anniversary of its hard-fought independence from France. The players were filled with a sense of national duty, conscious that they were the heirs of Algeria’s first national football team.

Founded in exile in April 1958 by the National Liberation Front (FLN), the movement that spearheaded the independence struggle, Algeria’s football squad had been a powerful symbol of Algerian resistance to French colonialism. Capitalising on football’s mass appeal, the squad served as an effective propaganda tool through which to rally Algerians to the FLN’s cause, forge a distinct national identity, and impress upon world opinion the patriotism, skill, discipline, and tenacity of the Algerian people in their struggle for freedom. Several of the FLN’s original players went on to form the new national team after freedom was won. Some continued to serve on the 1982 squad’s coaching and managerial staff.[1]

The 1982 match was not Algeria and Germany’s first footballing encounter. The two sides had met once before, on New Year’s Day 1964, after Germany’s Mannschaft became the first Western team to be invited to Algeria for a friendly that Algeria won 2-0.[2]

Considering that the FLN’s original football team never actually played a match in, or against, West Germany during the independence struggle, the fact that Algeria’s Football Federation invited the Mannschaft as one of the first teams to play its newly formed squad seemed rather odd, as did the West German Football Federation’s decision to accept. After all, the Algerian Federation had yet to join world soccer body FIFA, which, in response to French pressure, had threatened harsh penalties against those who engaged with the FLN’s team.

What’s more, Federal Germany had been one of France’s staunchest allies all throughout the Algerians’ independence struggle. The Bonn government had refused to have anything to do with the FLN until after independence[3] when Cold-War rivalries kicked in and Bonn feared that the government of Ahmed Ben Bella government, with all the prestige it enjoyed in the Third World, might recognise East instead of West Germany. It took the persuasive power of ‘chequebook diplomacy’ for Bonn to stave off this nightmare scenario, which for a while at least seemed like a real possibility considering East Germany’s generous aid to the FLN throughout its fight for national liberation.[4]

The Secret History of Algerian-German Relations

And yet, this official narrative obscures a complex, often secret, history of connections between the two countries that runs far deeper than is generally known. The Bonn government might have shunned the FLN and all its representatives during Algeria’s war of independence, but this didn’t stop the movement from setting up safe houses, forgeries, bank accounts, training camps, and even a quasi-diplomatic bureau in West Germany that helped sustain the fight against France.

In 1958, Germany became a base from which the FLN launched and coordinated the second front of its war in metropolitan France; it served as a hub for the clandestine transfer of militants, army deserters, and funds from the metropole to North Africa; and it became a preferred location where the FLN could secretly procure arms, munitions, radio communications equipment and other vital supplies. These activities created constant and severe tensions between the governments in Bonn and Paris that accused the Germans of harbouring terrorists.

The FLN, meanwhile, had become so effective at subversion that the German security services never quite managed to catch up with them. On more than one occasion this prompted the French secret services to intervene directly, sometimes with unintended and deadly consequences.

Meanwhile, West Germany also became a vital sanctuary for thousands of Algerian refugees fleeing from police repression, political violence, and internecine warfare in metropolitan France and North Africa. Largely young, unskilled or semi-skilled, destitute male workers with no knowledge of German who had left their families in Algeria to make a living in France’s industrial centres, these refugees posed a social, political, and diplomatic problem for Bonn.

The FLN’s supporters pressured the government unrelentingly to extend political asylum to the Algerians. French authorities, meanwhile, insisted on the refugees’ immediate transfer into their custody, arguing that they were likely to be rebels, criminals and terrorists. Faced with these conflicting pressures and constrained by legal restrictions, the Bonn government had no choice but to tolerate the Algerians’ presence so long as they refrained from political or subversive activities, though it denied them refugee status.

As such the Algerians’ existence in West Germany remained precarious. If securing work, shelter, and subsistence proved a daily challenge, it was rendered all the more difficult by mutual incomprehension and colonial stereotypes that informed German reactions to the new, darker-skinned arrivals in their midst.

Most refugees depended on the charity and assistance of local aid organisations, trade union branches, student associations and leftist political movements to secure their basics. In many cities, local aid committees emerged to help the new arrivals. They arranged shelter, mediated on the Algerians’ behalf with the authorities, provided legal council, organised jobs and apprenticeships, and raised funds for scholarships and language tuition. Even those who benefited from this help found life in Germany tough as is evident from reports by the aid committees and Algerian trade union representatives.

In one letter, dated April 1961 that was written in broken German to Willi Richter, head of the West German Federation of Trade Unions (DGB), 24 Algerians selected to participate in an 18-month training programme, expressed their heartfelt thanks for the DGB’s generosity in funding their education. They were particularly grateful for the DGB’s additional donation of 24 football kits, including cleats.

Faced with the material and psychological pressures of exile from a brutal and dirty conflict that had claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced millions others, both internally and externally, the chance to play football represented a welcome and needed release for the Algerians, a brief respite during which one could forget the burdens or war and enjoy life. Football also provided them an opportunity to communicate and bond with their German hosts in a shared language and on an equal playing field. As the Algerians proudly informed Richter, the kits and cleats “already helped us to one victory in a football match when we played against a team composed of young German colleagues.”[5] Just like the FLN’s national team, these young men used the sport to impress upon their opponents that Algerians, too, were people of worth whose only obstacle to realising their full potential was the colonial oppression they were forced to endure.

Football Diplomacy

As a result, football played an important role in facilitating and generating German-Algerian mutual understanding and respect at a time when official relations between the two countries did not exist. Racial stereotypes and daily hardships aside, the interaction such matches fostered helped turn the tide of West German public opinion against ‘French Algeria’ and for the FLN.

The German national team may have never played a game against the FLN’s squad, but this did not prevent Eintracht Frankfurt – the club that had won the 1959 West German football championship – to invite several members of the Algerian squad, who were passing through Frankfurt over Christmas that same year, as guests of honour to one of its matches.[6]

Eintracht extended this gesture despite the fact that the Algerians were returning from an extended visit to Communist China and in opposition to FIFA. Simple as it was, the club’s gesture constituted a symbolic act of respect for, and solidarity with, the Algerian team.

Ironically, an Algerian win in this year’s match against Germany in Porto Alegre would have set the Algerian squad up for an even more historic encounter: a quarterfinal against their country’s former colonial hegemon in a year in which Algeria celebrates the 60s anniversary of the launch of the FLN insurgency against France.

One can only imagine the pandemonium that would have ensued, not just in Algeria, but also in France. After all, the country is home to millions of French citizens of Algerian descent; 17 of the Algerian squad’s 23 players were born there; and racial tensions remain a constant problem.[7]

Mathilde von Bülow is a lecturer in international and imperial history at the University of Nottingham. She is completing a monograph for Cambridge University Press that examines West Germany’s role as a rebel sanctuary during the Algerian war of independence.

[1] Michel Naït-Challal et Rachid Mekloufi, Dribbleurs de l’indépendance: l’incroyable histoire de l’équipe de football du FLN algérien (Paris: Editions Prolongations, 2008); Kader Abderrahim, L’indépendance comme seul but (Paris-Méditerranée, 2008). [2]; [3] Jean-Paul Cahn and Klaus-Jürgen Müller, La République federal d’Allemagne et la guerre d’Algérie, 1954-1962 (Paris: Le Félin, 2003); Nassima Bougherara, Les rapports franco-allemands à l’épreuve de la question algérien (1955-1963) (Bern: Peter Lang, 2006). [4] On East German relations to the FLN, see Fritz Taubert, La guerre d’Algérie et la République Démocratique Allemande (Editions universitaires de Dijon, 2010). [5] Archiv der sozialen Demokratie, Bonn, Nachlass des DGB, Akte 5/DGAJ/000207, Brief von Saïd Rabah et al an Willi Richter, 28 April 1961. [6] Naït-Challal et Mekloufi, Dribbleurs de l’indépendance, pp.150-1, 162-3. [7]

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