Algeria’s win and a political football
For a few hours on Friday, Algerians forgot their domestic turmoil and instability, and turned their attention instead to Cairo — where their international football heroes proudly held aloft the Africa Cup of Nations after a thrilling 1-0 victory in the final against Senegal.
Algeria’s 2-1 victory over Nigeria in the semifinal sparked celebrations from North Africa through Lyon, Marseille and the Champs Elysee in Paris, all the way to London. For once, the national conversation was not about the woes at home but about something all Algerians can be proud of, regardless of their political leanings.
Interim President Abdelkader Bensalah arrived in Cairo on Thursday and met the team, underscoring just how important Friday’s match was. His mandate as interim president expired last week and protesters have categorically rejected negotiations with the Algerian army’s Lt. Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah, placing Algeria on a dark, uncertain path.
What Algeria carried from the Cairo International Stadium on Friday was more than just victory, the joy of lifting the trophy and raucous celebrations after being crowned champions of the continent. Often, international matches such as these are easily worked into the political and social fabric back home, and the outcome can become a litmus test or referendum for local developments. It may be politically expedient — even necessary — to distance international sport competitions from domestic politics, but fervent nationalism and pride make that quite impossible.
There are numerous examples of how a national team’s performance becomes intertwined with developments at home — either as a distraction, for unity, or as a potent symbol of fundamental change. England’s Cricket World Cup victory offered temporary relief to a nation beset by Brexit woes and endless chaos from Downing Street to the Palace of Westminster.
For once, the national conversation was not about the woes at home but about something all Algerians can be proud of, regardless of their political leanings.
The US emerged victorious in the Women’s World Cup this month, which effectively blunted any criticism from the White House and conservative pundits, targeting team members who are not sold on the Trump presidency. It also intensified the fight for equal pay given the wide disparities in compensation with the men’s team, who have never won a world championship compared with the women’s four.
South Africa’s hosting and winning the 1995 Rugby World Cup was a welcome boost to a new post-apartheid era. North Korea’s victory against a heavily favored Italy in the 1966 World Cup delivered a propaganda victory to Kim Jong Il just 13 years after the Korean War. Thus, domestic politics may be quickly shaped by the outcomes of international matches from the Olympics to Formula 1, cricket, boxing and even chess.
So what can Algeria learn from their football triumph in Cairo? Here is the team’s head coach, Djamel Belmadi, after the final: “Without the players I am nothing,” he said. “They are the main ones.”
What a useful lesson for any aspiring politician.
Moreover, after keeping his fifth tournament clean sheet in Friday’s final, Algeria’s goalkeeper Rais M’Bolhi was named Man of the Match — demonstrating the value, in sport as in politics, of a safe pair of hands.
- Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advance International Studies. He is also senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and at the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington DC and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell