How football helped Algeria's liberation movement
- 7 January 2017
- From the section Africa
One day in late 1958, at the height of the Algerian war of independence, an Algerian couple in their early twenties hopped into a fast car, put on some music and set off on honeymoon from the French capital Paris.
Mohamed and Khadidja Maouche spent the next 48 hours on a whirlwind tour. In a MG convertible - painted British racing green - they drove west to Le Havre, then south to Rennes and Bordeaux, east to Nimes, before heading back up north to Troyes and Reims.
Mohamed was a footballer and had a letter from his club, Stade de Reims, stating that he was authorised to be on leave so that he could celebrate his marriage.
Mohamed and Khadidja were newlyweds - but their honeymoon was an elaborate disguise.
In fact, they were on a covert operation for the independence movement Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN), which four years earlier had started a fight against French rule in Algeria.
Their secret mission was to persuade Algerian-born footballers to secretly abandon their top-flight French clubs to play for a team set up by FLN.
Khadidja's role was pivotal. She worked with a collective of Paris-based Algerian lawyers who defended FLN activists and at 20 years old, was the FLN's youngest liaison officer in France.
"I was in charge of contacting the players, either before or during the games," Khadidja says.
"No-one knew I was married to Maouche. They would just be told a FLN activist wanted to speak to them. I would talk to them individually to say: "It's an order, that's it," and they all agreed."
Mohamed and Khadidja's enterprise was risky. Both had already served time in prison and were under surveillance by the French intelligence services. Khadidja was also on the target list of La Main Rouge, a shadowy group sponsored by the French state to eliminate FLN members and supporters.
But Mohamed remembers those days of danger and the "crazy" story of the car with affection.
"We had to be sure of ourselves. If you weren't sure of yourself there was no point in going on such missions because, in the worst case scenario, this could cost you dearly. So we were very relaxed."
They drove for 48 hours, practically non-stop, and music was a constant companion.
"I loved music so much because it was also a good way to pass the time," Mohamed says.
"There was this one song we used to play. It was by Richard Anthony and it was about a little MG. It was extraordinary. With hair flying in the wind in the open-top car. Oh, we were so young," he giggles.
After recruiting the players, Khadidja and Mohamed instructed them to slip over the border to Switzerland.
Winning hearts and minds
Khadidja was told by the FLN man in charge in Geneva to go to a supermarket called Mi-Gros to collect forged travel documents. As she shopped, she was approached and greeted by a man.
"He kissed me and while he was kissing me he said "open your bag!"
In went 15 passports, which allowed Khadidja, Mohamed and the footballers to go to Italy and catch a ferry to Tunisia - where the FLN was based.
There, they joined nine other footballers - three of whom were part of the French 1958 World Cup squad and whose defection earlier in the year struck a real blow to the French establishment.
The FLN team was ready to kick off and over the next four years until independence in 1962, the players went on tours to countries including Iraq, Vietnam and Hungary to highlight the Algerian struggle for independence. They played attacking, entertaining and winning football before huge crowds of up to 80,000.
"We were the first ambassadors of the revolution and the Algerian people," Mohamed believes.
"Because most people did not know that there was a real war in Algeria. We spoke to people after the match and the next day there were interviews and that's how they discovered Algeria. We were true ambassadors."
Le onze de l'independence, as the FLN team was also known, proved to be a powerful way of winning hearts and minds. Seeing a team of eleven in white shorts and green shirts on the football pitch made an imagined Algeria real.
Mohamed Maouche finally joined the FLN team in 1960 and recalls his first match against Libya, which they won 11-0.
"It was really extraordinary because we lined up and the flags go up… and when I saw our flag, the national emblem in the air… with its star and crescent, my heart was racing and I had goosebumps and we all said 'Vive l'Algerie'."