That bastion of British liberalism and prince of online newspapers, the Guardian, adopted a familiar tone of sniggering bemusement as it reported last Friday:
“When football players seek inspiration they normally opt for a round of golf. Not the Algerians, though. Ahead of their big match with England tonight, the north Africans have made a trip to the cinema to watch a screening of The Battle of Algiers.”
Imagine, footballers going to see a serious film, especially one that is, the paper reports, “gritty, troubling” and “over two hours long”. The article proceeds to quote a player to the effect that the film was “moving” and, indeed, that “it was moving to spend the time together”. However, the Guardian sniffily concludes that “Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 classic” is hardly the sort of film to encourage a winning mentality, noting: “the movie’s history as an educational tool is a chequered one. It was also the subject of an infamous screening for Pentagon staff shortly after the invasion of Iraq in 2003.”
After a display of such post-imperial density, it appears that someone in the Guardian needs to sit in on a history class, perhaps ‘Anti-Imperialism 101’ — the sort of course where The Battle of Algiers has been screened for the last 40 years. While it is true that the film does not flinch from atrocities committed in the name of the Algerian independence struggle, it is widely revered as a document and as a source of inspiration for capturing the passions and tactics of a guerrilla insurgency — which is why, obviously, the Pentagon reckoned it was worth a look. Based on a revolutionary memoir by Saadi Yacef and banned in France on its release, it is a film whose sympathies and message anyone outside the Guardian understands.
Go figure why you, as Algerian soccer underdogs, might go to see such a film before playing against, say, England (with whom they drew 0-0 Friday) and the United States (whom they will play this Wednesday).
Just to underline the point, soccer was in fact specifically important in the Algerian independence struggle. When the FLN set up its government in exile in Tunis, it also established a national football team. Two players from the highly rated French national squad, Rachid Mekloufi and Mustapha Zitouni, slipped out of France not long before they were going to attend the 1958 World Cup to switch their allegiance to the new Algerian set-up — a team that played exhibition games in Arab and communist countries and became famous for their dashing attacking play.
In this last respect, anyway, the current Algerian team doesn’t measure up. Although they played some nice, composed passing football against dismal England on Friday, the Algerians completely ignored the bit of the game that involves attempting to score goals. This fact may be sufficient to allow some American leftists to neglect their anti-imperialist duties and proceed to chant “USA! USA! USA!” on Wednesday. That is a matter for each fan’s conscience. What is certain is that the Algerian team management — dealing with a group of young men drawn overwhelmingly from urban France, whose very visages speak of poverty more clearly than any other set of faces in this World Cup — believes that the players can be inspired by their anti-imperialist heritage.
Whether it because of such inspiration or because of the awfulness of their qualifying group, Algeria now stand as one of the likeliest of all the African teams to advance from their group, though their chances aren’t very good. This World Cup has moved inexorably closer to the “disaster” for African football that I mentioned last Thursday. In a previous article I offered some generic reasons for African football’s failure to offer some inspiration against the game’s traditional power axis; in this tournament the African teams have failed even against teams from weaker regions, and to the generic reasons already discussed we can add some specific failings.
For one, that Algerian indifference to scoring goals is endemic. African teams have managed only six goals in 12 games. This is something of a carry-over from the African pre-tournament qualifying, where even the top teams rarely scored more than twice a game; only Ivory Coast had an impressive goal-scoring record before getting to the World Cup. Far from African football being, as the stereotype suggests, beautiful but unrigorous, it is — largely under foreign management — perhaps the grimmest, most cautious in the world.
Ghana, whose two goals at the World Cup have both come from penalties, are the only African team to have won a game in South Africa. Their hard work and organization will get them through if they can hold Germany to a draw this week, but their failure to really threaten a mediocre Australian team who were down to 10 men does not augur well. The sort of political point-scoring that often blights African football was highlighted when the Ghanaian president, John Evans Atta Mills, arrived at the team’s training camp last week to promise that all the squad would get per-diem payments for the duration of the tournament. And they’ve caught some of the French disease of dissension too, with top player Sulley Muntari griping about his substitute role: it appears his continuing participation is on a knife-edge.
At least Ghana’s on-field discipline has been good, which is more than you can say for Nigeria — whose World Cup was essentially ended by a moment of touchline madness from Sani Kaita, needlessly shoving and kicking an opponent. Or for Ivory Coast, who lost all residual claims on our support with a couple of potentially leg-breaking tackles against Brazil, followed by Kader Keita’s play-acting to get Brazil’s Kaká sent off. (The rotten officiating that allowed a Brazilian goal despite a double handball is no excuse.) South Africa and Cameroon deserve at least some sympathy, having been undone by nothing more than some bad luck and their own ineptitude.
Even an African referee couldn’t do right, with Koman Coulibaly from Mali managing to conjure up some American passion about soccer when, in his first-ever World Cup finals game, he called a phantom foul against the USA in the build-up to a would-be winning goal against Slovenia.
The chaos in the French camp — where players rebelled after Nicholas Anelka was sent home — and the aborted rebellion among England players — the poor boys are apparently fed up and bored both on and off the field — show that you don’t have to be African to be miserable at this World Cup, though it helps. These failures among the old imperial powers at least made for a good few days in Ireland, where the sun made one of its rare appearances, and teams from the ‘global South’ playing in green jerseys embarrassed both our ancient political enemy, England, and our new footballing enemy, France.
No, you don’t need to give us any lessons about anti-imperialism.