Les Pieds-Noirs: Algeria’s Forgotten Footballers
They were war criminals, Nobel Prize laureates and World Cup record-setters. History often shuns them into that dark corner where it tends to stash the unspeakable atrocities too tender for recollection. They were les Pieds-Noirs.
The word Pied-Noir literally translates as “black foot”, and it refers to North African settlers of French origin. The vast majority of these settlers ended up in Algeria. In fact, when the Franco-Algerian war began in 1954, 1 million of Algeria’s 9 million inhabitants were Pieds-Noirs.
But in the span of a few years, the heart of their identity was arrested by a hideous infarction – decolonization. In eight short years the entire French population of Algeria had relocated.
Many pieds-noirs didn’t consider themselves French, but they also knew that they were different, perhaps superior, to the natives. Stuck in a peculiar identity limbo, les pieds-noirs forged their own identity and subsequently stamped a significant impression on footballing folklore.
Football as a Colonial Export
The French Football Federation exported a tested template to North Africa. Unlike French Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia were protectorates, so the French invested less in their footballing infrastructure. Nevertheless, five professional leagues were installed across North Africa; one in each protectorate, and three in Algeria: Algiers, Oran and Constantine. The five champions of each league would then participate in an ancient version of the Champions League called the North African Cup. Part One of our series homes in on a special goalkeeper in the league in Algiers: Albert Camus.
Camus was born in 1913 to a mother of Spanish descent, just 20 km south of modern-day Annaba. His father died in World War One just a year later, so Albert was raised by a single mother who could not read nor write. Her additional hearing impediment meant that her only method of communication was by reading exaggerated lip movements.
The Camus household understandably struggled to make ends meet during his infancy so he was raised in the popular neighbourhood of Belcourt (modern day Belouizdad). Due to his wit, undeniable intellect, and athletic ability, Camus inevitably matured into a gregarious adolescent.
Algiers’ Football Scene
He started playing organized football at the age of 15 at his local lycee. His team was l’Association Sportive de Montpensier, at the time an amateur club who were outfitted in odious purple and red hoops.
As he hailed from Belcourt, Camus should logically have played for le Gallia Sportif d’Alger, one of four clubs that dominated the football scene in Algiers. But his ‘hairy friend’ (his description, not mine), a swimmer, found better swimming facilities at l’ASM. Had Camus ventured out on his own, Gallia may have had the privilege of calling him their own.
The four leading clubs located in la Ligue d’Alger in the early 20th century were:
– Gallia Sportif d’Alger (GSA)
– AS Saint-Eugene (ASSE)
– Olympique Hussein Dey (OHD)
– Racing Universitaire d’Alger (RUA)
Gallia was the popular club of the pieds-noirs population in Algeria’s capital. Le Gallia was also the most successful colonial club in North Africa. Derby matches against the only Muslim club – MC Algiers – were often fractious and highly-charged affairs. If Camus had joined le Gallia, it was highly likely that he would never have left.
The other biggest and most successful club in colonial North Africa was l’AS Saint-Eugene. They, like le Gallia, won 8 league titles. Le Gallia were located in Alger-centre and thus catered to a middle-class demographic. L’ASSE, on the other hand, were located in a banlieu i.e. the suburbs. Therefore the players and supporters ranked in the upper echelon of the social hierarchy in French Algeria.
The other two clubs were smaller and more specific. Olympique Hussein Dey was situated in the Hussein Dey district – named after an Ottoman governor who insulted a French ambassador and incited an upcoming invasion. Hussein Dey, as a club, was less segregated. It was a sporting association where Arabs – Muslim and Jewish – were tolerated. L’Olympidue de Hussein Dey followed the erratic sartorial tendencies of their Algerois counterparts as they donned purple and yellow kits.
L’OHD’s arch rivals were le Racing Universitaire d’Alger, hereon in known as RUA, and this is where Camus moved to from ASM. L’RUA tussled with a stigmatizing “chic” label associated with the club. They were often jeered as “Papa’s boys” who were rich and well-mannered; the boys who usually seemed above the rigours and struggles of sport. Most club members were University-educated as is indicated in the club’s name, though academic enrolment was not a requirement.
Because they were so different, the boys were often on the end of intimidation tactics. And though Camus was not yet the intellectual giant he would soon flower into, he could not escape the hazing. Coca-cola bottles were used as missiles to target the high-class elites from Algiers and his opponents on the pitch were rarely any nicer. As a goalkeeper, Camus paid tribute to Raymond Couard, his bulldozing centre-half, for protecting him. But it was never enough.
L’Olympique de Hussein Dey’s striker made a particularly painful impression in the to-be philosopher’s memory. Nicknamed “Le Pasteque” (literally, “the watermelon”) presumably due to his large size; the sadistic target man found pleasure in harming poor Camus in net. The smooth language used by Camus to recount the abuse is wonderfully facetious:
“He commanded all of his weight against my kidneys. I also received a shin massage from his rough boots, some shirt-grabbing, occasional knees in the noble regions, and sandwiches against the post.”
Notwithstanding his painful recollections, Camus spoke fondly of his footballing memories. On a serendipitous journey to Argentina, for example, RUA slipped off of his tongue and into conversation. He then found the immense joy we as supporters have all experienced when unexpectedly stumbling across a fellow fan.
In the infancy of football as a game, we see camaraderie amongst supporters and even amongst players. In his letter to the RUA, Camus made a profound statement on the moral role of sport:
“Yes, even Le Pasteque had some good in him. The world has taught me much, but what I retain on morals and the obligation of man, I owe to sport, and it’s at RUA that I learned it. That is why RUA can’t perish. Guard it for us. Guard for us this grand image of our adolescence, because one day, it’ll grow with you.”
L’RUA did perish and Camus was forced out of his beloved Algeria. He searched long and hard for a similar club in France before deciding on le Racing Club de Paris. Like l’RUA, RC Paris wore white shirts with blue trim and had strong pieds-noirs affiliations.
But what did remain was the series of anecdotes Camus recounts that provide us with priceless insight on the state of football in French colonies. Following the First World War, there was, at least, one fully functioning league in each French colony in North Africa. Said leagues catered to an entire range of ages and were classified from amateur to pro. Though football was at a rudimentary stage, there were inter-city rivalries, club identities and full stadiums. Tuberculosis cut Albert Camus’ playing career short, but in his words we find time portals from which to learn about the game we all love.
by Maher Mezahi – coming soon….Morocco.