If you set aside all the real big hitters of global political geography, the superheated paracontinents of Russia, Canada and Australia, Algeria is one of the largest countries on the planet. Stuck between Kazakhstan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the world rankings, it is the biggest nation in Africa: facing northward across the Mediterranean, launching ferries towards Marseille, Cagliari and Genoa, it also plunges south, charging towards the centre of its land mass. The Atlas Mountains cut the urbanised north off from the vast, thinly inhabited Saharan south, whose provinces, once combined, contain a population barely as high as that of Algiers.
For such an enormous state, Algeria seems to struggle to present an image of an intrinsic national identity. Sadly, its main connotation in modern times is the appalling internecine conflict of the 1990s, which only really caught the global imagination once its repercussions were felt in the Parisian Metro bombings and the hijacking of an Air France flight. Typically, Algeria was ignored until its nearness to Europe was made palpable. In fact, it would not be absurd to say that the world at large thinks of Algeria as not one, but two nations, the first an inscrutable, largely uninhabited North African republic characterised by governmental and religious instability, the second a deterritorialised, quasi-European entity existing sort-of amorphously within the political boundaries of France and increasingly separate from its geographical origin. When an Algerian acquaintance said to me recently that he regarded Marseille as an ‘Algerian city’, I don’t think he meant simply that Algerian people live there, but that it is the focal point around which this ‘second’ Algeria functions, a point of reference for diasporic energy like Manchester or Liverpool.
The two northwestern, ‘Irish’ English cities are worth mentioning for context as there is no clear parallel between France and Algeria’s relationship and the one between Britain and its former African and Asian colonies. The geographical proximity made the northern part of the country little more than a territorial extension of metropolitan France throughout much of the twentieth century, and the idea of independence for le plus beau fleuron brought the coloniser to the brink of a military coup in the 1950s. More, I think, than any other country – Israel, Syria, Morocco – Algeria is the ‘near abroad’ of Europe, a land which seems a concrete realisation of abstractions about slippage and liminality. Indeed, two of France’s most prominent twentieth-century thinkers of uncertainty, Albert Camus and Jacques Derrida, were technically Algerian. (So, come to think of it, was Louis Althusser, poorly referenced but not infrequently present in a conceptual sense on SotB.)
Camus’ novel The Plague, set in Oran, made the pestilential devastation of the Algerian city into a metaphor for fascism in Europe. It’s tantamount to the degree to which Algeria had been absorbed into France that the author did not appear to see the irony of staging his allegory about occupation and resistance in a city which had itself been under occupation since the middle of the nineteenth century. Reciprocally, perhaps, modern Algeria might assert a claim over the novel, taking it in turn as a symbol of its own fight to emerge not only from the experience of colonisation but from an epistemology which makes it into an annex in which Europe can stage its psychodramas, a not-quite-Europe pulsing with allegorical potential.
Algeria go to Brazil with a squad which could, in some lights, look representative of an attempt to raise a specifically Algerian consciousness. It would not be unfair to speculate that fans in Algiers and Oran might have looked on with irritation and a sense of what if as France started to capitalise on the footballing consequences of the diaspora during the 1990s. The greatest ever player for Les Bleus – sorry, but I’m not arguing this point – was born to Algerian parents in Marseille; Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema, present day players who have aux armes citoyens–ed at Saint Denis, also qualify for both nations. Although Nasri and Benzema were still finding their feet in the under-21s as Zidane’s career came to its filmic conclusion, there are presumably Algerian fans who have imagined all three taking to the field together for their country.
The current set-up seeks to mobilise the effects of the diaspora for its own ends. No team has gone to the World Cup with such a huge proportion on its squad born abroad as Algeria in 2010, when 17 players were French-born, and around half of the players Bosnian coach – and, perhaps tellingly, former Paris Saint-Germain star – Vahid Halilhodžić has selected in his 30-man provisional squad come from north of the Med. Indeed, several of the Algerian players have played at age group level for France, thus allowing Halilhodžić to benefit to some extent from centralised French investment in coaching and youth development.
One suspects, given the disastrous results of the European elections in France, that Algeria’s 2014 side will provoke a reaction with shades of Norman Tebbit’s infamous(ly stupid) ‘cricket test’. Perhaps it’s worth, in a World Cup where expanded eligibility and player naturalisation is a significant issue, to frame an argument as to why the Tebbit position on these things needs to be dismissed – it’s good to have a stock line for these things when the idiot in the pub starts citing them approvingly while you’re trying to concentrate on the game. First of all, why should individual players be more or less forced to represent a country from which they are simultaneously marginalised as abject and to which they are told they must demonstrate patriotic fidelity? This is nothing less than the reactionary expediency of the pseudomoral discourse of ‘integration’. Second, the notion that a member of a diaspora ‘should’ play, as opposed to ‘should be allowed to play’, for the country of their birth creates a myth about how the ‘non-indigenous’ owe the country that ‘hosted’ their parents or grandparents a favour. This needs to be challenged in all situations, not least in that lines of migration invariably open when the receiving country experiences a need for cheap labour, but particularly in those where political instability in the country being left behind is a direct outcome of colonisation.
Algeria have been handed a tough group with Belgium, South Korea and Russia. Even if the weight of expectation causes Belgium to have a World Cup pratfall on the scale of the Netherlands in 1990 or Colombia in 1994, the Koreans are formidable opponents for anyone in the group stage and Russia have both footballing and political points to prove. The only way in which Algeria could encounter France is if they make it to the quarter-finals, which would be a huge task regardless of the Greens’ swagger through the African qualifiers. If that does occur, however, we could be looking at one of the most ideologically fascinating games of the tournament.
Posted by Joe Kennedy