Algerian history as graphic novel: “The past flows into the future”

"Un maillot pour l'Algérie"

It’s sad when you speak to a footballer and it’s impossible to discuss anything other than the ball.–Rachid Mekhloufi.

The football World Cup of 1958 is mainly remembered for two men. The first is Pelé, and the second is Just Fontaine. On the way to the semi final, which they lost to Brazil, Fontaine scored thirteen goals for France, still a world cup record. France beat Germany in the play-off to finish the tournament in third.

Absent from Les Bleues throughout the tournament was Rachid Mekhloufi, a twenty-one year old forward who played for Saint Étienne. Rachid was born in Sétif, Algeria, the son of an auxiliary policeman, but under a constitution which formally designated the colony as part of France, he was eligible for the metropolitan team. Like the tough defender Mustapha Zitouni, from Algiers, Rachid was a star, and a guaranteed pick for France.

So it was a great shock when nine Algerian professional footballers playing in France disappeared in the night of April 13-14, 1958. ‘DISAPPEARANCE OF NINE ALGERIAN FOOTBALLERS (INCLUDING ZITOUNI)’, ran the headline on the front page of L’Équipe. The players, together with a few more recruits from home, set up based in Tunis, where they formed an Algerian national side avant la lettre, assembled by the National Liberation Front (FLN). They spent the next four years touring the non-aligned and anti-imperialist world, representing the nation-to-be in North Africa, the Middle East, China, Vietnam and the Soviet bloc. “I met people like Ho Chi Minh, people who made history,” Mekhloufi said later, “the Rachid of 1958 and 1962 were two completely different people.” The graphic novel, Un Maillot Pour l’Algériepublished last year (in French only, so far) tells the story of Rachid and his teammates.

As the brilliant English writer Joe Kennedy put it, “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 characterized by governmental and religious instability, the second a deterritorialized, quasi-European entity existing sort-of amorphously within the political boundaries of France and increasingly separate from its geographical origin.” Naturally, Kennedy was writing about football – specifically, the prospects of the Algerian team in the World Cup of 2014 – but just as naturally, he was talking about so much more.

Political islamophobia has played a prominent role in the French presidential elections scheduled for tomorrow (and not only from Le Pen, for the record), but its object is mysteriously dislodged. The Muslim or Arab danger is both the third generation “Algerian” youth of the suburbs (whose grandparents came to work in the same factories that employed Abelhamid Kermali before he began playing for Mulhouse), and the desperate refugees dying in the Mediterranean. European neo-nationalist politics is born in this post-colonial neurosis.

The National Front’s taxonomy of citizenship is ordered in the light of this slippage, while the anger and venom at its heart were born in the defeat in Algeria. Before it implanted itself in the de-industrialised towns of the North and East, the Front’s strongest base was in mediterranean towns and cities like Béziers, where thousands of bitter pieds-noirs, (former colonists resident in Algeria) fled after the 1962 cease-fire. The current Mayor of Béziers, a FN fellow-traveller called Robert Ménard, was born in Oran. He refuses to mark the ceasfire of March 19, 1962 – “I don’t celebrate defeats” he has said – and renamed the local Rue de 19 Mars 1962 after an officer involved in the failed coup against De Gaulle of 1961. For Ménard the contemporary fight for “the resurrection of Europe” makes sense only in the light of his childhood in Algeria. “The past flows into the future.”

Though the story of Un Maillot Pour l’Algérie is ultimately one of triumph, the players suffered too. Though glad to serve the cause, they gave up friendships, relationships and promising careers. Prior to 1958 they had lived tangled lives of friendship and football in two continents and, (supposedly) one country. In one scene an argument breaks out as the team watch the World Cup on television and Zitouni celebrates Fontaine’s goals. “Hey Mustapha… one would think that it was you who won… remember where you are eh?” a teammate rebukes him. “So?” he snaps, “I’ve got the right to be happy for my friends, no?”

Zitouni, Mekhloufi and the rest of the FLN team were noteworthy in French league football in the 1950s, but they were not out of the ordinary. In 1957, the same year that Rachid helped Saint Étienne to a league title,  Abdelhamid Bouchouk and Saïd Brahimi scored in the final to win the Coupe de France for Toulouse. One of Rachid’s teammates at Saint Étienne was the Cameroonian Eugène N’Jo Léa. Even the great (white) star Fontaine had been born in Marrakech: colony and metropole were well and truly entangled, in football as in everything else. The only possible humane way out of the present crisis of European racism lies in a recognition of this tangled history.

After the cease-fire, Rachid Mekhloufi returned to Saint Étienne, where he played until 1968, winning the league in 1964, 1967 and 1968. In his final game he scored both goals in a 2-1 win over Bordeaux which secured the club’s first ever league and cup double.

One of the strengths of the graphic novel medium is the way that authors and artists use its conventions to foreground decisive moments and central ideas. A character faces the front of the frame, or the picture is zoomed suddenly in or suddenly out, as if to underline a phrase or a line of dialogue. Before his first match, the coach warns him that the stadium is full of those who have come to see “A soldier, a traitor, a deserter. [Show them that] you are once again a footballer.” As the teams emerged, Rachid recounted later, the stands were totally silent.

In this match, depicted in the final pages of the book, Rachid goes on a run, past one, two, three players. “Shit, he’s even better than before”, a face in the crowd exclaims. He breaks in to the box, squares the ball, and his teammate finishes. The whole team mob Rachid. “Il est pour toi celui-la, Rachid! Il est pour toi!” the goal scorer shouts. The crowd chants, Ra – Chid, Ra – Chid, Ra – Chid.

Further Reading