By Peter Alegi | April 12th, 2012 1 Comment
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.