x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

All across North Africa, the beautiful game turns ugly

Routine cheating or exorbitant ticket prices seem trivial when set against real suffering and harm in or near football stadiums, writes Colin Randall

JS Kabylie striker Albert Ebosse of Cameroon controls the ball during the final of the Algerian soccer Cup in Blida near the Algerian capital, Algiers. Ebosse died after being hit in the head by an object thrown from the crowd at a top-flight league game in Algeria on August 23, 2014. (AP Photo)
JS Kabylie striker Albert Ebosse of Cameroon controls the ball during the final of the Algerian soccer Cup in Blida near the Algerian capital, Algiers. Ebosse died after being hit in the head by an object thrown from the crowd at a top-flight league game in Algeria on August 23, 2014. (AP Photo)

In a few months from now, a minor centenary of the First World War will recall the Christmas truce of 1914, the unofficial ceasefires observed by enemy troops on the western front along the Franco-Belgian borders. According to some historians, these gestures of peace and humanity included impromptu football matches played between British and German soldiers in the No Man’s Land between opposing trenches.

Simple kickabouts did not prevent the appalling carnage of the ensuing conflict. Yet they were an illustration of what has become a common phenomenon: the tendency of some people to turn to football for solace from the more unpleasant aspects of life.

My French-Algerian friend Fahim is one of them. Football brought us together on social media and we correspond regularly. Even as he raged and despaired at bloodshed in Gaza, there was a tacit understanding we’d soon be talking about football again.

Fahim’s pride in Algeria’s ebullient 2014 World Cup campaign was almost tangible. So was his grief and anger at the tragic, pointless death of Albert Ebossé Bodjongo, a Cameroonian striker with one of Africa’s richest clubs, JS Kabylie (JSK). Bodjongo, as he was known, was struck by a projectile thrown from the stands after a home defeat to USM Alger in which – as if this matters – he had scored JSK’s only goal.

The Algerian football authorities have postponed this weekend’s matches in the country’s top flight and ordered the indefinite closure of the JSK stadium, home games to be played elsewhere, pending the results of investigations. “I’m currently on holiday in Algeria and it’s the only thing people are talking about,” Fahim tells me. “It’s a real disgrace for Algerian football.”

It would be facile to link one dreadful incident to disillusion among Algerians to the social and political malaise arising from 15 years of rule by Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

His April re-election for a fourth term required a tweak to the constitution – not the first – and was condemned by his opponents. It also prompted unrest in Kabylie, a region the size of Denmark and home, in the city of Tizi Ouzou, to JSK. Mr Bouteflika has rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013.

Doubts about his capacity for office chip away at the credibility of his instruments of state as they confront the sort of violence that ended Bodjongo’s life and cannot be written off as an isolated act. The throwing of objects at players and officials has become commonplace, persuading many observers that this was a tragedy waiting to happen.

If Bodjongo’s death is ultimately attributed to simple hooliganism, there are disturbing signs elsewhere in North Africa that football cannot always be trusted to rise above politics and jostling for power to be the unifying force for good described by the Algerian-born French philosopher Albert Camus.

Not a great deal of fraternity or common purpose can be seen in post-Qaddafi Libya, so unstable that the country has withdrawn as host of the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations.

There will be soon be a sharp reminder of Egypt’s turmoil when a court retries 73 defendants convicted over the deaths of 72 fans of Al Ahly football club in unspeakable violence at a match in Port Said in 2012. At the original trial last year, 21 of the accused were given the death penalty.

The great Liverpool manager Bill Shankly famously and only semi-lightheartedly said football was not a matter of life or death, but more important than that. Yet Shankly was talking about passion, not the scars and bitterness left by upheavals that can embrace sporting rivalries but stretch far beyond.

In the explosive world of 2014, it is impossibly naive to put faith in the power of Camus or Shankly, men both long dead, to have any positive influence in conflict zones.

A football-supporting former head of the Methodist church in the UK, the Rev Leo Osborn, has strong views on Aston Villa, his club since boyhood, but stronger ones on the limits of sport’s significance.

“Shankly was wrong,” he told me when football caused our paths to cross. “Football is less important than life and death and anything that obscures that so that we avoid asking questions that really matter about why we are here and what life really is about … means in my view football has become a drug that diminishes rather than enhances life.”

But can it at least be a drug with some beneficial qualities?

Perhaps the best to hope for is that lovers of football everywhere will take note of events, loosely or directly linked to the game, that transcend their natural fervour and truly are matters of life and death. Then, the proper sense of disgust felt at routine cheating or exorbitant ticket prices will seem unbearably trivial when set against a background of real suffering, real harm in or near the stadiums of the world.

Colin Randall is a former executive editor of The National