Ahmed Ben Bella, the first president of Algeria, died in Algiers at the age of 93. The son a farmer and petty trader, Ben Bella lived a life of struggle, beginning at the age of 16. As James Gregory’s poignant obituary in today’s New York Times explained, “Ben Bella chafed at colonialism from an early age — he recalled a run-in with a racist secondary school teacher — and complained of France’s cultural influence. ‘We think in Arabic, but we talk in French,’ he said.” Ben Bella’s political conscience was sharpened on high school football pitches under colonial rule. “When I maneuvered at speed against the enemy,” Bella remembered, “nobody asked me whether I was European or Algerian — I either scored or I didn’t, and that was that. I was responsible only to myself for success and failure alike.”
Conscripted into the French military in 1937, Ben Bella “took to soldiering as readily as he had to soccer back home. He was promoted to sergeant and won celebrity as a soccer star in Marseille,” according to the Times. He earned the Croix de Guerre for bringing down German bombers with his anti-aircraft gun during the Nazi assault in 1940. After the fall of Marseilles, Ben Bella was offered a professional football contract but turned it down and returned home instead. He eventually joined the Free French forces under De Gaulle and was decorated again for his role in the Italian campaign of 1944. After the war, he became a leader in the Algerian independence movement.
Ben Bella, like other African nationalists, believed that football — originally a European colonial game — could be appropriated and made to express African people’s desire for equality and freedom. While in exile during the second phase of Algeria’s war of independence (1958-62), he lent his imprimatur to the FLN XI — a remarkable team of France-based professionals formed in 1958 that came to symbolize Algeria’s quest for freedom and its crystallizing national identity. (For more details about the history of this team, see my book African Soccerscapes and Ian Hawkey’s Feet of the Chameleon. French readers can also consult R. Saadallah and D. Benfars’s La Glorieuse Équipe du FLN and Michel Nait-Challal’s Dribbleurs de l’indépendance.)
Ben Bella later became Algeria’s first Prime Minister and then its first president (1963-65), until a military coup got rid of him and kept him under house arrest for 14 years. Exiled in 1980, he still managed to celebrate Algeria’s 2-1 victory over West Germany in the 1982 World Cup: the first World Cup win by an African team against a European side (highlights here). Ben Bella returned to Algeria in 1990 and remained politically engaged, as an opponent of the U.S. war in Iraq, and as a critic of global capitalism and radical Islamism. Ultimately, his football style and leadership style informed each other: “Ben Bella always wanted his teammates to pass the ball so that he could score,” a former schoolmate recalled. “He was the same in politics.”
Mahfoud Amara, “Football Sub-Culture and Youth Politics in Algeria,” Mediterranean Politics, 17, 1 (2012): 41-58.
By Simone Poliandri
This week we celebrate women’s football with a spectacular goal by one of the best players in the world, Brazilian striker Marta Vieira Da Silva. Voted FIFA player of the year for five consecutive years (2006-2010), Marta, who just signed a two-year contract with the Swedish first-division team Tyresö FF, gave proof of her exceptional talent in a recent game that her team won 7-0 against KIF Örebro. In the 55th minute, Marta controlled a loose ball in the box with her right foot and back-heeled it with her left to make the score 5-0. As Marta played her first game for Tyreso in March 2012, this is the beginning of a season of extra work (and headaches) for opposing defenders and goalkeepers.
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By Simone Poliandri
The opening goal in Real Madrid’s 5-1 away victory against Osasuna in matchday 31 of the Spanish Liga brings all long-term football aficionados back to memories of past champions. On March 31, Madrid striker Karim Benzema volleyed a surgically accurate cross by Cristiano Ronaldo into the opposite top corner of Osasuna’s net. This marvel of coordination and accuracy resembles closely Dutch phenom Marco van Basten’s splendid goal against USSR in the 1988 European Cup final.
Giorgio Chinaglia died yesterday, April 1, in Florida at the age of 65. The sad news brought back a flood of memories. I remember how as a kid in Rome in the 1970s, my grandfather had a funny habit of responding to my detailed stories about meaningless youth football matches by saying: “You are just like Giorgio Chinaglia.” Maybe it was the curly hair, pronounced chin, and slightly curved shoulders. Or maybe it was the unmitigated joy of my goal celebrations, I don’t know.
I was not a Lazio supporter, but I liked how my grandfather connected me to the prolific striker who had recently won the scudetto (Italian league title) and then had joined the most glamorous team in the world: the New York Cosmos. Growing up in a bicultural family (American dad / Italian mom), I also shared a linguistic connection with Chinaglia. His family had immigrated to Wales after World War II (his father found work in a foundry) and he had started his professional career at Swansea City before returning to Italy. This Welsh background explained his “Long John” nickname, inspired by Juventus’s Welsh center-forward John Charles of the late 1950s and early 60s. I was too young to watch the broadcasts of the 1974 World Cup, but I knew of Long John’s performance in Italy’s opener against minnows Haiti. With Italy leading 2-1, Chinaglia was substituted and refused to shake coach Valcareggi’s extended hand, offering instead a theatrical “vaffanculo” (“fuck off”) for the television cameras. Needless to say, that was the end of Chinaglia’s Italy career.
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