Arab autocratic regimes responded back in the 1980s to a wave of Islamist-inspired protests with little less brutality than some have done this year, but in the case of Algeria perhaps with greater ingenuity in a bid to engineer an Algerian soccer success that would distract attention from the protesters’ grievances.
While Syria brutally suppressed an Islamist uprising in 1982 in the city of Hama killing at least 10,000 people, members of Algeria’s national soccer team believe that they were secretly doped to enhance their performance. The players who played for Algeria in the 1982 and 1986 World Cups at a time of a series of protests in the country charge that eight of the team’s members have handicapped children that have been born since the tournaments. They are demanding an investigation. Algeria’s soccer federation has yet to comment.
“We have serious doubts over the effects of medication that we were given during training camps. We just want the truth,” said former defender Mohamed Chaib, a father of three girls born with muscular dystrophy, in an interview with Agence France Press.
One of Mr. Chaib’s daughter died in 2005 at age 18. Medical tests found no abnormalities either with him or his wife.
Whether doped or not, the Algerian squad delivered a performance in 1982 at a time that protests erupted in the city of Oran and spread in 1985 to Algiers and Setif in 1986 that many Algerians still cherish. In front of 25,000 fans at the El Molinon stadium in Gijon, Algeria’s Desert Warriors turned soccer on its head, defeating favourite West Germany 2-1. Duke University’s Laurent Dubois quotes an Algerian commentator as wondering at the time whether German children were asking their fathers: “Dad, where’s Algeria?”
The match is widely viewed in Mr. Dubois’ words as “the most infamous case of collusion in the history of the World Cup.” Mr. Dubois writes on his blog, Soccer Politics/The Politics of Football that “Austria and Germany made sure Algeria didn’t advance by playing a game that produced exactly the score needed for the two of them to go on. The incident is widely remembered today — FIFA responded by having the final matches in the group stages played at the same time, to try and prevent it from happening again — but the full weight of the action, and its symbolism, is sometimes overlooked. Two European teams colluded to make sure a non-European team was stopped.
Djamel Menad, a striker in the 1986 cup, said his daughter born in 1993 suffered from agenesis of the corpus callosum, a condition that causes seizures and muscle weakness. Mr. Menad said it seemed unlikely to be a coincidence that several other players his age had children with disabilities and blamed the medications doctors handed out. “Since I discovered I was not alone, I began to ask myself questions. They gave us drugs and vitamins to battle for energy loss after training and matches,” Mr. Menad said.
Former midfielder Mohamed Kaci Said, the father of a 26-year-old disabled daughter, told Algerian newspaper El-Khabar that “doubts persist until an enquiry has been opened and the truth told.” He said he was shocked when his daughter was born and some thought he and his wife, who is of Turkish origin, may have been related. Mr. Said said that foreign medical staff may have used players as guinea pigs to test drugs similar to what Soviet sports doctors were reported to be doing at the time.
Players said they could not recall the medications but suspect that caused their children’s birth defects. Some said doctors never gave them their medical files, El Watan newspaper reported.
Ali Fergani, who captained the team in 1982, dismissed the players’ suspicions. “The number of players who are parents of disabled children is minimal compared to the total number of players selected,” he said, insisting that all medical staff had been Algerian nationals and that he recalled being given only Vitamin C.
Mr. Fergani insisted that Algeria had defeated the tournament’s favourite, West Germany, because “we played a different type of football, which had never been seen before. It was a concoction of German, French and Latin styles.”
The calls for an investigation come as anti-government protests that erupted in Algeria early this year as part of the wave of uprisings sweeping the Middle East and North Africa have fizzled out on the streets of Algerians towns and cities but are alive and kicking in the country’s soccer stadiums where football fans regularly take on President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the military and the Islamists.
Algeria’s political geography of protest has however changed since the street manifestations early this year. Algeria is now surrounded by three nations in transition: Libya, Tunisia and Morocco where the king has pre-empted protesters by pushing forward with constitutional reform. Disgust with the ruling military’s nepotism, corruption and inability to provide sufficient jobs fuelled by the success of their brethren in the region ultimately runs deeper in Algeria than fears of renewed confrontation with the military or uncertainty over the Islamists real aims.
“Our songs focus on current events, on politics and the economy. We sing about politicians, about security, about terrorist attacks. We criticize the current government as well as the extremists of the (outlawed) Islamic Salvation Front. We also criticize the high cost of living in Algeria and the privileges enjoyed by the country’s elite, who send their children abroad to study while so many young Algerians are unemployed and live in poverty,” said Amine T., a supporter of popular Algiers club Union Sportive de la Medina d’Alger (USMA).
In a region dominated by autocratic rulers bent on controlling the soccer pitch and benefitting from its popularity to polish their tarnish image, Algeria is among the most advanced in encouraging the emergence of soccer as a professional sport. As a result of the regime’s reduced involvement in the sport, soccer fans have a tacit understanding with authorities under which they can say what they like as long as they keep their protests confined to the stadium.
“It’s not so much our slogans that worry the authorities, it’s how many of us there are. For example, when riots erupted in the Algiers neighborhood of Bab el-Oued earlier this year, the Algerian Football Federation temporarily suspended matches. They did this because they were worried that if the police couldn’t control a few dozen youths in the street, they certainly wouldn’t be able to control 60,000 football fans leaving a stadium. I think that the authorities don’t actually have a problem with our chants: if we get our anger out inside the stadium, then that’s it, we don’t cause any trouble outside,” Amine T. said.