MARSEILLE, FRANCE // Thousands of Algerians are expected to pack stadiums and millions more across the world will sit glued to TV screens to watch the country's first professional football championship when it launches in a fortnight.
In what many Algerians see as a symbol of the growing maturity of the biggest Maghreb state, the 32 teams of the two-division league will play their opening games on the weekend starting September 24. The excitement behind the launch reflects not only the country's passion for football but also the part the game has played in the country's recent turbulent past, fans say. From Marseille to Paris, London to Montreal, wherever people of Algerian origin have access to satellite channels, enthusiasts will gather in cafes and restaurants to watch the top teams in action.
"Every Algerian, wherever he or she is on the planet, is a football fanatic," said Mohamed Bouguerra, 35, who runs the website algeriafoot.com. "For Algeria, we can truly talk about football being the opium of the people. Algerians follow football worldwide but above all, their own league." Football officials have structured the new league to meet the requirements of the international governing body, Fifa. Algeria is anxious to show the world, after the violence surrounding the World Cup qualifying play-off tie against Egypt, that it can produce a well-run and successful competition.
However, no one expects even the biggest Algerian clubs such as Entente de Setif, JS Kabylie and last season's champions of the old league, Mouloudia d'Alger, to compete with the players' wages of the big European teams. Mr Bouguerra estimates that Algeria's top-flight domestic footballers earn an average of 6 million dinars a year (Dh290,000) before bonuses. The highest-paid player, the Entenet de Setif goalkeeper, Faouzi Chaouchi, collected Dh785,000 last season, a "veritable fortune in Algeria", Mr Bouguerra said, though insignificant compared with the earning power of international superstars such as David Beckham and Lionel Messi, whose reported salaries are at least 150 times as much.
While Algerian players such as Chaouchi have been paid in the past, they were not previously considered professional in the terms of the regulations and structures governing their teams and contracts. Mr Bouguerra expects payments to become more formalised in the professional league, but not to rise sharply in the short term. But players, supporters and officials predict progressive development and a future in which Algerian clubs can at least reach the standards of the Tunisian and Egyptian leagues.
"It is great for the fans who live and breathe football, and for my country, so I am really enthusiastic," said Abderraouf Zarabi, 31, an Algiers-born defender with the French club Nīmes, who has played for the national side 22 times. "One big problem in the past was the lack of good pitches and training facilities and it is good to see progress is being made." Asked whether the new professionalism would lure him back to his native land, he said: "I am under contract to Nīmes until 2012 and am happy here, but as for the future, maybe in some role helping young players, why not?"
It is a measure of Algeria's modest footballing standards that after reaching the World Cup final stages in South Africa, when the national team finished bottom of its group, a 0-0 draw against England was fźted as a national triumph. But as shown by the reaction on the streets of French cities on the night of that game against England, Algerian fans are fiercely loyal. To the exasperation of some politicians in France, French nationals of Algerian descent leave no doubt as to their allegiance, some whistling derisively when La Marseillaise is played in stadiums. But since independence in 1962 came after a bloody war against France as the colonial power, it may be unrealistic to expect different.
"It is true that the recent history of Algeria is linked with football," said Mr Bouguerra, from algeriafootball.com. "It has been the case ever since Mouloudia d'Alger, a Muslim club, was created in 1921. "Then there were the four players, who on the eve of leaving to play for France in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, preferred to defect and join the FLN [National Liberation Front] and help form the glorious FLN team that was the embryo for our national side."
During the civil war of the 1990s, he added, football was the sole distraction that enabled Algerians to forget their perilous daily lives. For Sofi Sofiane, 23, a systems administrator for a mobile phone company in Oran, Algeria's second city, the new league cannot start soon enough. "In the 90s, the country was the victim of a broad wave of terrorism and the stadiums were crowded every weekend," he said.
"Now, security is back but the stadiums are empty because the level of football has declined. So the new league is an opportunity to bring change." Despite the need to stamp out "bad habits" - some players paid in cash, or in some cases not at all - he hoped Algeria would in time benefit from the new professionalism. Mr Sofiane, a supporter of his city's second club ASM Oran, is also excited by the thought of young Algerian stars graduating from an academy established by the celebrated French coach Jean-Marc Guillou.
But that, too, is a dream for the longer term, "not today or tomorrow," Mr Sofiane said. "Those youngsters will compete easily with the greatest European teams but we will have to wait, because they were born between 1995 and 1998," he added. firstname.lastname@example.org