Goalkeeper, Philosopher, Outsider: Albert Camus
It’s the centenary of Nobel Prize winning writer, journalist and philosopher Albert Camus, so it seemed the perfect time to add him to our list of FFW heroes.
« What I know most surely about morality and the duty of man, I owe to football. »
What Albert Camus meant when he gave an interview to the sports magazine of his university in Algiers in the 1950s, a couple of years before being awarded the Literature Nobel Prize in 1957, is often debated. One of the greatest French writers of all time might have been a professional football player were it not for a tuberculosis calling a day to his career at the age of 18. He played as a goalkeeper, a position defined both by solitude and solidarity, as reflected in his body of work and political leanings. It is the position where some of the most eccentric, outlandish characters of the sport have also flourished throughout history. The position for outsiders.
Born on November 7, 1913, exactly 100 years ago today, Albert Camus was in many ways an outsider, to borrow the title of his most famous novel (L’Etranger).
His parents were members of the Pieds-Noirs (Black Foot) community, the name given to French settlers in North Africa from 1830 to the 1960s. Most Pieds-Noirs considered themselves as French, but were greeted with « Pieds-Noirs to the sea ! » signs as they sailed back to what they thought was their homeland in the 1960s, after Algeria joined other Maghreb countries in proclaiming their independence from France.
Pieds-Noirs were often seen as profiteers and colonizers in France. Some however were heavily involved in their country’s war effort during both World Wars as testified by a quarter of the Army of Africa (siding with the Allies in the North African Campaign of 1940 – 1943) being made up of Pieds-Noirs.
Albert Camus’ father Lucien, a wine merchant, was one of the numerous Pieds-Noirs fighters who went to France in 1914 to fight against the Triple Alliance. Fatally wounded in the Battle of the Marne, Lucien Camus dies from his injuries in October 1914 at the age of 29, a month before Albert’s first birthday.
The missing ones are generally forgotten. At times though they are too big not to be remembered. Losing his father before he could even see and talk to him, Camus spent all his existence using his imagination to bring life to this man he only knew from pictures. This quest was best depicted in The First Man (Le Premier Homme), his final unfinished novel, which he was writing at the time of his death in a car accident in 1960, aged just 47.
The Premier Homme manuscript was found by chance in a bag lying in the mud by investigators rushing to the crash scene in Villeblevin, a hundred kilometres from Paris. Next to the manuscript were the train tickets Camus and his wife had planned to use to return to the French capital from their vacation in Southern France. The recent winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, who could not stand cars, had somehow been convinced to return to Paris by road, driven by his editor Michel Gallimard.
The irony of Camus’ death, at the height of his glory, was a fair depiction of his literary philosophy. His works were all the reflection of what he perceived as mankind’s inability to find a meaning to life, despite all of our actions being geared towards that goal. The absurd nature of our existence was understood by Camus very early in his youth, and it provided him with a sort of unreachable freedom that is what, in the end, allowed this son of an illiterate widow to become one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.
« The confrontation between man’s call and the world’s silence » is how Camus defines absurdism. This silence could be that of his loving mother, born deaf, who educated Albert and his older brother Lucien, born deaf-mute, after her husband’s passing.
«The absurdity of existence has had three consequences on my life, » he once said. « My revolt, my freedom and my passion ».
His biggest passion was football. Growing up in the destitute Belcourt neighborhood of Algiera, where « misery taught [him] that not all goes well under the sun and throughout history », Camus was a gifted goalkeeper for his school team. He later went on to play for Racing Universitaire Algerios (RUA), still between the posts, before tuberculosis ended his promising career prematurely at the age of 18.
It is in the RUA alumni magazine that he comes up with the famous football quote. Its longer and more accurate version was « What little I know on morality, I learned it on football pitches and theater stages. Those were my true universities ».
The shortened and more popular version is embroided on the goalkeeper jersey sporting Albert Camus’ name that sells over 5,000 copies every year on Philosophy Football.
What Camus meant has often been, sometimes purposedly, misinterpreted. Football fans have sometimes proved happy enough just to know that someone as bright as Camus shared their love for this game sometimes outwardly seen as gawky, and subordinated to more elitist sports.
His core reasoning was most likely to be that in football, by essence, rules are clearly set out and easily understandable. This simplicity is what leads some to view it as a low-ranking sport for the masses. But it is also what makes it one of the most popular on Earth.
Far from politicians trying to confuse us with their convoluted moral systems, where words are kept one day and forgotten the next, football is disarmingly disciplined. The field is one and the same for everyone, the ball is one and the same, and what differentiates players is hard work and raw talent.
If everything was as simple in this absurd society.
Camus, coming from a destitute background of which he was ashamed, loved the common framework of the football pitch where everyone, regardless of race or social status, is welcomed – « I did not know how poor I was until high school. It is then that I learned to make the difference. »
He would not even have got to high school were it not for his primary school teacher Louis Germain, who recognised the boy’s intellectual abilities and convinced his grandmother to let him apply for a study scholarship in 1924. Camus would later pay tribute to Germain in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
In 1940, eight years after the onset of the tuberculosis that ended his football dreams, Camus tried to play football again. As he amusingly recounted later, « Before the end of the first half, I was sticking out my tongue like these Kabyle dogs you sometimes meet at two in the afternoon in the summer, in Tizi-Ouzou. »
Tizi-Ouzou in Kabylia, less than a hundred kilometers east of Béjaia, the city Zinédine Zidane’s parents left to look for work in France in 1953, at a time when an increasingly popular Camus worked on adapting Dostoevsky’s Devils for the Paris theaters.
Tuberculosis had forced the young Camus to devote himself to journalism, chiefly political. His left-wing leanings lead him to take over Combat, the clandestine newspaper of the French Resistance, in 1943 and form friendships with the foremost thinkers of his time – André Gide, Jean-Paul Sartre. It is around that time that he started writing in earnest and his first novels sprang to the limelight, The Myth of Sisyphus in 1942 to unveil his philosophy of the absurd ; The Outsider a year later, in which the main character Meursault kills an Arab on a beach out of (almost) nowhere.
Looking back on the excerpt relating Meursault’s absurd crime and his subsequent punishment, one would be forgiven for sparing a thought for Zinédine Zidane in the 2006 World Cup final.
« I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with howls of execration. »
Camus’ words in 1942 could have been Zidane’s thoughts in 2006. The revolt, freedom and passion of the footballer had created one of the finest writers of our time.
For more on Camus and les Pieds Noirs, you can also read Maher Mezahi‘s piece on Algeria’s Forgotten Footballers.