Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 August 2019

World Cup: how the Fennecs charmed the world

The Algerian team's campaign may be over, but they taught Arabs, and the rest of the world, a few things.

Images of Arabs united in joy have been a highlight of this summer’s football World Cup. There were lots earlier this week when Algeria played so superbly against Germany, only to lose late in extra time.The modest young Algerian team were praised for their talent, their commitment, their genuine patriotism and their ambition to succeed. They won legions of new fans around the world, not least of all in countries with a shared culture.

The whole point of great sport is that it provides joyous distraction from the often-terrifying reality of life – and the Arab world needs it more than most at the moment. A murderous civil war in Syria, more death and destruction in Iraq, the continuing horror of life in occupied Palestine, and a thousand other problems blight the region, leaving little scope for optimism.

But “We Are all Algerians” – the cry heard throughout stadiums in Brazil where Algeria were playing – was repeated all over the globe. One of the most touching scenes during the Germany game was a café full of Algeria supporters cheering on the team from the West Bank. For a couple of hours at least, all of them could try to forget the Israeli ground raids and air strikes which have been raining lethal ordnance on their families and homes for the past fortnight. Palestinian artists have also been inspired by Team Algeria – producing remarkable effigies of players including Madjid Bougherra, the captain. Palestinian musicians have even composed songs for their Algerian “brothers” while more renowned voices have also joined in the praise.

Kadim Al Sahir, the Iraqi singer known as the “Caesar of Arabic song”, told me recently that he wanted to see Algeria “go as far as possible in the competition”. Palestinian Arab Idol winner Mohammed Assaf posted a picture of himself on Twitter with an Algerian flag. Other international celebrities also commended Algeria’s brilliance. Those who took to Twitter to express their appreciation included former England striker Gary Lineker, France midfielder David Ginola, and Hollywood actor Hugh Laurie. Laurie tweeted: “Algeria just plain bloody heroic”, while Lineker’s words were: “Well played Algeria. A credit to African football”. Ginola posted: “Huge hats off to Algeria”.

The Fennecs – or Desert Foxes – returned home to Algiers on Wednesday, as hundreds of thousands took to the streets, triumphantly waving green and white flags in a unified show of immense happiness. Drivers sounded their car horns, sirens wailed, bands played and fireworks rocketed into the skies.

The Algerian footballers and their coach Vahid Halilhodzic were treated as returning heroes and were met by Abdelmalek Sellal, the country’s prime minister. A traditional double-decker bus, painted in the team colours, drove them through the packed city streets.

The inspirational scenes of triumph following Algeria’s huge achievement at the World Cup – including getting into the knockout phase for the first time – were grounded in history too. Towards the end of the French occupation, which lasted for 132 years up until 1962, some brilliant Algerian footballers refused to turn out in the blue shirts of the colonists.

Just before the 1958 World Cup two of the best – Mustapha Zitouni and Rachid Mekhloufi – led a breakaway Équipe FLN, or Team National Liberation Front (FLN), the organisation fighting to send the French home for good.

Little wonder then that free Algeria’s first president, Ahmed Ben Bella, was himself a first-rate player who had turned down a professional contract with Marseille.

He too was a guiding hand in the development of Team FLN, which won exhibition matches all over the world. As the Fennecs in Brazil, they stood proud and clearly deeply moved as their national anthem was always played before kick-off.

Nowadays, great footballers from Algerian backgrounds still play for France, of course. Zinedine “Zizou” Zidane inspired Les Bleus to the famous 1998 World Cup win in Paris, while striker Karim Benzema is still hoping to do the same in Brazil this summer. Those who choose Algeria are not worse players, they are just less likely to want to exploit their talent financially. It has even been claimed that the Algeria team donated their World Cup prize money to the people of Gaza.

It is this selfless charm that made the Fennecs such an attractive team to get behind. Theirs is the joy of the competition. Hence the delightful Fennecs’ song, One-Two-Three, Viva l’Algérie. Now sung at every game, one theory is that it dates back to the War of Independence, when Algerians sang “One-two-three, we want to be free”.

The Fennecs’ ambitions have now clearly moved beyond national liberation, and are firmly concentrated on winning games. Post-match interviews with players suggested they could have gone all the way and won the World Cup, with a bit more luck.

No one who watched the Germany game will ever forget the Algeria goal which was ruled offside by a whisker. They will never forget the near misses nor the breaks the Germans seized with characteristic efficiency and – most glorious of all – one of the best goals of the tournament by Algeria in the closing minutes.

But most of all, it is the fans, including all those new ones, who will never forget what the Algeria football team did for Arabs at a time of intense gloominess. In the words of one of the faithful: “What an incredible experience – the team didn’t just represent Algeria, it played for all of us.”

Nabila Ramdani is a French- Algerian journalist and broadcaster who specialises in Islamic affairs and the Arab world

On Twitter: @NabilaRamdani

Editor’s note: This story was updated on July 5

Updated: July 3, 2014 04:00 AM