What is behind Algeria and Palestine’s footballing love affair?

Support for Palestine was on avid display throughout the Arab Cup 2021, especially by Algeria’s team and fans.

Algeria's players wave Palestinian national flags after winning the FIFA Arab Cup 2021 semi-final football match between Qatar and Algeria at the Al-Thumama Stadium in the Qatari capital of Doha on December 15, 2021 [File: Karim Jaafar/AFP]

As the final whistle sounded at Al Bayt Stadium in Qatar’s Al-Khor last Saturday, crowning Algeria as the winners of the FIFA Arab Cup 2021, Maher al-Baqa’s beachside café in Gaza City erupted with joy.

His customers waved the Algerian flag as they ecstatically swayed and danced the dabke to the football chant of “1, 2, 3 … Viva Algerie”. Chocolates and sweets were handed out, and a few women sitting at the tables added to the celebrations by ululating.

“Despite the Palestine national team crashing out in the group stages, we view the Algeria team as our own, and their victory as ours,” al-Baqa said. “They support and love us more than any other Arab country or team.”

Throughout the 18-day tournament hosted by Qatar, support for Palestine has been on avid display. During the opening ceremony, the loudest cheer from fans in attendance came during the Palestinian national anthem.

Translation: The beautiful thing about the Arab Cup final between Tunisia and Algeria is that the winner will raise the flag of Palestine … Congratulations to the Palestinian people for winning the support and love of the liberated people.

The Palestinian flag was also present in the stadiums waved by supporters of the beautiful game. But for the Algerian team – and their fans – one could be mistaken for thinking they were representing Palestine.

In his post-match interview after Algeria had knocked out Morocco in the quarter-final, defender Houcine Benayada pointed to the Algerian and Palestinian flags he had draped over his body and said: “We do not play for any bonus, we play for these two flags.”

And after the final match against Tunisia, Algerian coach Majid Bougherra dedicated his country’s victory to Palestine – and to the “Gaza Strip in particular”.

But where does this open and often emotional support for Palestine – compared with other Arab countries – come from?

According to Tagreed al-Amour, a sports journalist and member of the board of directors at the Palestinian al-Hilal football club, Algerian solidarity for Palestine is prevalent among the government and the public – in stark contrast to a majority of Arab governments that have isolated themselves from the popular support of the Palestinian cause and have either normalised relations with Israel or have backchannel dealings.

“The emphasis of solidarity is represented, or one can say completed, through sports,” al-Amour said, speaking from Gaza City.

Translation: [Raising the Palestine flag] might seem like a small thing but in light of normalising relations [with Israel], the very presence of Palestine in the most important Arab sports tournament is huge.

In return, the Algerian flag is present during different events throughout the squares and centres and shops of cities like Ramallah, Gaza City and Jerusalem, and even raised during protests in the occupied West Bank against the Israeli occupation.

“The Algerian support in football for Palestine has always drawn attention to the need for continued Arab support for the right to self-determination for Palestine and for the end of the Israeli occupation,” al-Amour explained.

“Those who crown their victory with the Palestine flags and the keffiyeh [scarf] are doing so to send the message of one blood, a symbol of Arab unity, and a rejection of colonialism and normalisation.”

For BeIN commentator Hafid Derradji, the Algerian solidarity with Palestine is “intrinsic to every Algerian child”.

“It’s present in the family, the street, the mosque and the school which all inculcate the values of resistance, freedom and the love and support of the Palestinian people’s struggle against the occupation,” he told Al Jazeera.

Solidarity over colonialism

Colonised by France for 132 years, Algeria earned its nickname among the Arab world as “the country of a million and a half martyrs”. According to Algerian sports journalist Maher Mezahi, the solidarity and love that exists between the Algerian and Palestinian people “has to do with the fact that Algerians understand the devastation of settler colonialism”.

“There’s that sentiment of resenting that [colonial] system,” he said, speaking from the capital Algiers.

Famously, former Algerian President Houari Boumediene in the early 1970s said: “We are with Palestinians, whether they are the oppressed or the oppressor.”

Algeria’s 1954-62 war of independence strongly influenced the country’s foreign policy and its support for the liberation cause of colonised people throughout the world. Palestine was no exception, with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) setting up an office in Algiers shortly after Algerian independence.

Years later, in 1988, it was in Algiers that the PLO met to declare the establishment of a Palestinian state.

That the Palestinian cause is so important to Algerian people is apparent in the stadiums, which Mezahi describes as an accurate reflection of what is felt in society due to the larger freedom of expression fans have in that space.

“The stadium is like a mouthpiece giving the working class person in Algeria a voice,” he said.

Translation: Celebrations in the village of Ni’lin west of Ramallah [in the occupied West Bank] as Algeria are crowned champions of the Arab Cup.

This view is shared by Derradji, who said youth who attended football games showed a “great deal of awareness”.

“The Algerian protest movement in 2019, to some extent, started in the stadiums,” Derradji said, referring to protests that within months forced the departure of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

“[Young people] refuse to engage with political associations because they consider them complicit. So they use stadiums as platforms to express their feelings and positions.”

According to al-Amour, stadiums are no longer limited to just a space for sporting competitions.

“Football stadiums have become one of the most prominent tools to voice support, advocacy, or raising awareness towards several political and societal issues, through chants, posters or songs,” she explained. “Stadiums are also a tool for measuring the awareness of the popular masses.”

‘Falasteen Chouhada’

Algeria supporters wave the Palestinian flag with a message in Arabic which reads ‘The trophy is a gift from the Algerian people to our family in Palestine’ ahead of the FIFA Arab Cup 2021 final [File: Karim Jaafar/AFP]

Through that space, one of the most organic and popular chants evolved among Algerian football fans: “Falasteen Chouhada”, meaning “Palestine, the [land of] martyrs”.

That chant is sung in the stands throughout matches where the Algerian national or club teams play.

According to Youcef Fates, a professor of political science at the University of Oran, Falasteen Chouhada is based on the chant Bab El Oued El Chouhada, which refers to the more than 500 Algerians – mostly young men and football supporters – killed by the government in the 1988 riots after protesting against their poor living conditions in the Bab El Oued neighbourhood in the capital Algiers.

Translation: A scene as much fun as the match … #Palestine [sung] in the victory chants.

The version of Falasteen Chouhada, Mezahi said, either began in 1988 – which also marked the first Intifada, or a few years later in the early 1990s.

“That chant is another staple of the Algerian national team,” he said. “The Algerian national team has sort of become the vehicle for the advocacy of the Palestinian cause in all of Algeria.”

The chant became so popular that Algerian fans supported the Palestinian team against their own side in a friendly match in 2016 that saw more than 70,000 fans attend the game.

The stadium erupted in euphoria after the Palestinian side scored, and for many, this could not better encapsulate Algerians’ love for Palestine.

The feeling, Maher al-Baqa from Gaza said, is mutual.

“Every time the team plays, our café is full of supporters,” he said. “Despite the physical distance between us, Algeria is the closest to our hearts.”

Additional reporting by Maram Humaid from the Gaza Strip.

Source: Al Jazeera