News | North Africa Protest on the Pitch

How Algerian football stadiums serve as arenas for political mobilization against the status quo



Maher Mezahi,

MC Alger fans at the derby against USM Alger on 4 March 2017 in Algiers, Algeria. Photo: IMAGO / ZUMA Press | xBillalxBensalemx

Football is often described as “the world’s game” or “the beautiful game”. It is easily the world’s most popular sport, as is indeed also the case across North Africa, and in Algeria in particular.

With several million registered players of all ages, and many more supporters to boot, football is known in Algeria as a countrywide pastime. The country boasts structured and professional men’s, women’s, and youth leagues that play on a weekly basis throughout the year, from autumn to spring. It is not uncommon for national team stars to be among the most popular personalities in the country, with their faces plastered all over billboards.

Maher Mezahi is an independent football journalist based in Algiers whose work has appeared in the BBC, The Athletic, The Telegraph, The Guardian, Al Jazeera English, and New Frame.

But football in Algeria isn’t only a popular past-time, it’s also part and parcel of the country’s political fabric.

A European Game on African Soil

Historians such as Dr. Peter Alegi trace the birth of football on the African continent to European labourers who made their way across the empires of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Algeria was no different, with the docks in Oran and Algiers birthing the first football clubs and sporting associations. The consensus holds that the oldest clubs in Algeria, CDJ Oran and CAL Oran, were founded in the port city of Oran by deckhands.

As football spread across the country, North African sporting associations consolidated around different identities and interests. For example, Racing Universitaire dAlger became the club of academics (including Albert Camus), LItalia de Tunis was founded by Italian immigrants in Tunisia, while several settlers’ clubs across the Maghreb were name “Gallia” after the Imperial Roman province now known as France. The representative nature of these sporting associations meant that the history of football in Algeria would forever be inextricably linked with politics.

In 1921, Mouloudia Club of Algiers was born. An apocryphal anecdote mentions that the name of the club was agreed upon during the Mawlid En-Nabawi, an explicitly Muslim religious holiday that celebrates the birthday of the Prophet Muhammed. The clubs aesthetics were highly representative, espousing the Islamic symbols of the crescent and star and donning green and red — traditionally colours of Islam and revolution.

After the founding of Mouloudia, an explosion of Muslim clubs followed suit, with some estimates stating that by 1923, approximately 20 percent of sporting associations were indigenous clubs. Clashes between Muslim clubs and settler clubs were frequent, prompting the colonial power to introduce legislation in 1928 urging local authorities to prohibit matches between the two sides from taking place.

The ineffectiveness of the injunctions pushed colonial France to institute a quota in the 1930s, whereby 3–5 players on every football team had to be of French origin in order to qualify for league play. Such measures were implemented sporadically and lasted no longer than a decade, as many clubs rigorously fought the implicit racism built into them (Jewish players, for example, were considered indigenous regardless of their citizenship status). 

Footballers for a Free Algeria

By the 1940s and the end of World War II, the foundations of the Algerian independence movement began to emerge. It was in this context that the stadium truly became a place of free political expression.

In 1945, for instance, during a match that pitted the Muslim club USM Temouchent against the European club Beni-Saf, it was reported that the Muslim supporters sang “Min Jibalina” (from our mountains) during the match — a revolutionary song composed in the early 1940s that was sung by Algerian scouts during the Setif massacre of 8 May 1945:

From our mountains came the shouts of the freemen, calling us to independence,

Calling us to independence, to the independence of our nation.

Our sacrifice for the nation is more important than life,

I sacrifice my life and my property for you.

O my nation, O my nation, I love none better than you,

My heart has forgotten the world, and is lost in your love.

Your love is vegetal, everything in you grows,

May there come to see a day when life blossoms throughout!

We shall defend with our lives every fibre of the soil,

We are the cubs of lions, so let us aid you to face your enemies.

Your rank in history shines higher than your highest uplands,

You have magnificent landscapes, that cease not to announce your beauty.

We are a wall enclosing you, we are stern mountains,

We are the sons of Algeria, people of resolve and steadfastness.

After the Algerian war of independence broke out in 1954, indigenous clubs began to refuse to play matches against colonial clubs altogether. In 1956, two years after the war began, the National Liberation Front (FLN) decreed that indigenous clubs should withdraw from the league and refuse to participate entirely. While the vast majority of players and clubs followed the order, one club, the Mouloudia Club of Algiers, continued to participate in the league.

In response, the FLN sent insurgents to a derby between Mouloudia and AS Saint-Eugene, one of the most iconic clubs of the colonial era. Newspaper clippings report Algerian supporters brandished the Algerian flag, which led to violent scuffles between police and the riled up crowd. The repression was so severe that several Algerians (Mohamed Maouche, Abdelhamid Zouba, and Hocine Bouchache) who played for either club immediately left the Algerian league and continued their respective careers in France.

Several years later, the FLN again used football in its fight for Algerian independence. Mohamed Boumezrag, a former player and coach and himself a nationalist militant, recruited professional Algerian players in France to create the first iteration of the Algerian national team. In April 1958, 13 Algerian footballers including stars such as Rachid Mekhloufi and Mustapha Zitouni inconspicuously left their clubs for Tunis, where the Algerian national team would thereafter be based. The FLN team went on to tour the Eastern Bloc and the Arab world, fundraising for independence efforts and raising awareness about the independence struggle back home.

Reclaiming the Stadium

Peace returned to Algerian stadiums for a couple of decades following Algerian independence in 1962. In the late 1970s, however, they would once more become places of political contestation. 

During the 1977 Algeria Cup final between JS Kabylie and NA Hussein Dey, tens of thousands of Kabyle supporters expressed their displeasure with president Houari Boumediene, who at the time was pushing a nationwide Arabization policy that many felt excluded their Berber or Amazigh identity.

Mouloud Iboud, JSKs captain that day, narrated the scene of that ground-breaking final in an interview with the Algerian football magazine LeButeur on 27 April 2014: 

I think everyone remembers the wave of people that had reached the capital on the day of the final. In addition to the purely sporting challenge — that is to say, we had to offer the JSK and all of the Kabylie its first cup in history — the final of 77 was an occasion to reclaim the Amazigh cause. The thousands of supporters who invaded the July 5th Stadium did not stop asking Boumediene for recognition of the Berber cause, with the famous slogan “Anwa Wigui? Imazighen!”, which gave all the players on the pitch goosebumps. Throughout the match, supporters kept talking to the president, who was in the VIP section.

Stadiums continued to comment on the political ups and downs of the 1980s.

Thousands rioted on the streets of Algiers in October 1988 to protest economic difficulties, and the Algerian governments heavy-handed repression killed hundreds. The aftermath effectively ushered in a new era of politics, ending one-party rule in the country. Soon thereafter, stadiums around the capital sang Bab El Oued chouhada” ([those in] Bab El Oued are martyrs), a chant that can still be heard in stadiums today.

Songs of Resistance

The advent of the internet helped invigorate the ultras movement in the early 2000s, bringing together passionate North African football supporters across the Maghreb. Groups now had leadership committees, specific places to sit in their home stadiums, well-defined codes of conduct to abide by, and synchronized clothing and apparel that they could also commercialize.

The influence of European ultra culture could be seen in the names of the new North African groups, whose names often use Italian or English, such as Ultras Verde Leone (Mouloudia), Ultras Loca Ragazzi (CS Constantine), or Ultras Fanatic Reds (CR Belouizdad). Yet, what makes North African ultras unique are the musical groups that are attached to the ultras’ formations. 

Such musical groups are extremely prolific, often releasing multiple albums per year. Their songs are published on social media and routinely memorized and sung on terraces on matchdays. One well-known USM of Algiers musical group is Ouled El Bahdja. The group is known for its provocative lyrics, which often address issues beyond the pitch. Mouloudia’s ultras have Groupe Torino,Groupe Catania, and Groupe Palermo, which were affiliated with Ultras Verde Leone prior to its dissolution. 

The majority of club songs typically touch upon love for the club, the glorious history of their team, and can also feature portions where supporters motivate players on the pitch to live up to their clubs reputation. It is not uncommon, however, for football songs to touch upon the socio-economic conditions facing their typical supporters (young, unemployed men), or political corruption at the very highest levels of the state. 

There was a particular uptake in production of political football songs towards the end of president Abdelaziz Bouteflikas fourth mandate from 2016–2019. Bouteflika had suffered a stroke in 2013 and was wheelchair-ridden. He had not addressed the nation directly since 2012 and had not made a public appearance since 2017. As Bouteflikas public appearances became less frequent, the Ultras Dey Boys of NA Hussein Dey, for example, released a song with a punchline that said: "The president is in a wheelchair, he’s a puppet holding on to power” before the Algerian Cup final in 2016.

Another popular football song emerged in 2018, after 701 kilograms of cocaine were seized at the port of Oran. The contraband was eventually linked to the entourages of ministers, mayors, governors, and even the head of the national police, Abdelghani Hamel. Soon thereafter, Moh Milanos song Yen a marre” stated, The state is wild, (importing) hash and cocaine”. 

It thus appeared as only a matter of time before groups would respond to eventual plans to run Bouteflika for a fifth term, which was officially announced in early February 2019. A few weeks later, spontaneous nationwide protests — which would later be dubbed the Hirak — broke out, eventually resulting in Bouteflikas resignation.

As the Hirak grew into the month of March, La Casa Del Mouradia” emerged as an anthem for the protestors. The song, created by Ouled El Bahdja, was named after the popular Netflix series that depicts a hold-up at the Royal Mint of Spain. The chorus dissects Bouteflikas four terms in office from the point of view of a football supporter. 

In the first (term) we can say they tricked us with "reconciliation”,

In the second (term) it became clear that this was La Casa Del Mouradia,

In the third (term) the country suffered because of personal interests,

In the fourth (term) the puppet died and our issue persists.

Protestors of all ages and social classes learned the lyrics and sang them in large numbers. Other stadium songs were also adopted by the Hirak on a smaller scale. USM El Harrachs Chkoun Sbabna” (Who is the cause of our problems) was also widely memorized and sung on Fridays: 

Who is the cause (of our problems)?

The government, they are the cause,

The cause of our misery, 

Algeria has worn us down.

The COVID-19 pandemic and increased repression from the extensive security apparatus put an end to the Hirak movement, and also kept supporters from attending matches in person. Nonetheless, football fans in Algeria are more productive nowadays than ever before. Although they are not congregating in the tens of thousands on the terraces, supporter musical groups continue to voice their opinions online through music or other methods, inspiring their generation’s struggle for a more just future.