Algeria created history and their reward for it was a flashback to it. Qualification for the knockout stages of the World Cup for the first time in their history paired them with the country who controversially denied them that in 1982.
Algeria’s draw with Russia was the spark of huge joyous celebrations in Algerian streets which soon became eagerness and anticipation as it dawned that Germany would be their foes. It was 1982 when Algeria played Germany and won 2-1. They also beat Chile 3-2 and would have gone through had Germany beat Austria 1-0, which is exactly what happened. Some saw it as a coincidence but Algeria saw it as a conspiracy. Nothing was proven but it means that to date Algeria are the only country to have ever won two games in the group stages and still have been knocked out.
That was the theme of the questions this time yet the discussion soon turned from a question on the pursuit of revenge to Ramadan. The heat and humidity and the nature of the opposition raised questions as to whether it was appropriate for the Algerian players to fast; however, they haven’t been alone in their decision to do so. There have been a plethora of Muslim footballers from France, Switzerland, Belgium and Nigeria who have been fasting during the World Cup.
Speculation had been raised as to whether their bodies could cope in the intense Brazilian heat without food and water during daylight hours, but this rapidly turned into criticism. The debate rose feverishly in Algeria, and the hailstorm of differing views eventually lured Algeria’s manager, Vahid Halilhodzic, into slamming media critics. He talked about ‘lack of respect and ethics’, before expressing his anger over criticisms of himself in the media, talking about his ‘image, honour…this is really disgusting’.
Whether it’s disgusting or not that a private decision has been transformed into a widespread discussion is up for debate, but when the criticisms became insults, such as in the form of an appalling cartoon degrading the Algerian football team’s decision to fast, it became rather evident that matters that were once private were now up for public scrutiny as a matter of course; even Bacary Sagna, France’s defender, has had to speak out about the need for freedom and respect in decisions when revealing he wouldn’t observe the fasts of Ramadan during the World Cup.
However, it appears that this debate has revealed a different agenda on the matter. The criticism of the Algerian players for fasting exposes the subtle undercurrent of racism orbiting around Muslims. Islam is never directly attacked, yet often the right-wing media present stories in such a sensationalist fashion that it pushes their readers into formulating a belief that Islam is the barrier to progress. In this case, Islam prevented Algeria from winning against Germany.
This is obviously not true, but every football enthusiast knows that the oldest logic is if you win, it’s because you took your chances and the opposition didn’t. On Monday night, the Algerian team hardly resembled the deplorable cartoon’s depiction of drained sportsmen, severely hungry and dehydrated. They outplayed Germany for some spells – direct, dynamic and brilliantly organised. Furthermore, the evidence to reinforce the logic was Germany’s Muslim star, Mesut Özil, who revealed he wasn’t fasting. This didn’t seem to improve his performance beyond Algeria’s on the night; in fact, he was as agile as a log and arguably less useful.
Many of France’s players will have been fasting; their silence is admittance, as if it’s a guilt-ridden gesture of doing something that could compromise national interests. Benzema and Pogba know their public won’t forgive them if France lose and their decision to fast will be brought to the fore.
At the end of it all there is something to be said about the abnormal focus on fasting and its deflection from a heroic display from Algeria. If indeed these players were fasting as they claimed to have done, then they were brilliant. Switzerland lost to France yet only narrowly lost to the Messi-inspired Argentina. Similarly, Nigeria began poorly but finished brilliantly. Algeria finished in the same way they started, with a 2-1 defeat, but there was a glimmer of pride and joy in their progress.
As Algeria’s manager explained, the maelstrom of pressure surrounding the fasting footballers has been extraordinary and further heightened by the stakes. The respect and freedom that Sagna has desired and Halilhodzic has demanded from the media and critics has been less than forthcoming. It’s a shame that even as the deluge of brilliant football drowns the social tensions in Brazil, it still cannot subdue the way Muslims have been targeted. Football is more than a game and often unites people with a common desire for utopia, yet it hasn’t worked in this instance. Rather than being the platform for equality, unity and freedom, football has become one of the many cannon for shots to be fired at Muslims.