Bilal Tariket and Hakim Khoudi insisted I take the front seat in Kamel’s Volkswagen Jetta, explaining that they were to be dropped off first. The two had just finished playing a crunch match for CR Belouizdad (CRB), who triumphed over El Eulma by the narrowest of margins. Tariket started in central midfield alongside Cameroonian water-carrier Gilles N’Gomo. It was his first start of the season and he was in good spirits, having comported himself well. A more pensive Khoudi slouched in the backseat, having lost his place to centre-half Tarek Cherfaoui.
Kamel is a journalist that works for Algerian television company En-Nahar. He wore slim red corduroys; his clumpy locks were immaculately coiffed, and his eggshell Jetta was thickly coated with a healthy helping of translucent primer that repelled debris from the pockmarked pavement. I did not know Kamel personally, but several fans outside of the stadium insisted he pose for souvenir selfies. He seemed, by all accounts, a bigger celebrity than the carless players.
Malek Addad – Kamel’s junior colleague at En-Nahar – was the journalist who invited me to the match. I was yet to apply for a press card, but he promised to smuggle me into the press box anyhow. We agreed to meet at the nearest metro station ninety minutes before the match, but several transportation lines were blocked and he was late. I wandered around Belouizdad for the next 25 minutes, exploring the district CRB called home.
Before independence, Belouizdad was called Belcourt, but in spite of its French name, Belouizdad was always a popular Arab neighbourhood. Chalk-white multi-storied Haussman-era apartment complexes line the inner bowels of downtown Algiers. But down the eastern seaboard in Belouizdad I found uncouth dun shanty homes with minute square windows carved into cement. No government-subsidised restoration projects seemed on the cards for Belouizdad and its residents.
Nonetheless the area was beautiful in its own right. The district’s southern bank sits on a forested hill and the downward slope gently coaxes you towards a sparkling Mediterranean coast. Between shanty homes and public housing complexes sprout determined palm trees. The salty air and close-quarters engender a comforting and homely warmth of spirit.
Right before Malek arrived, I bought a bottle of water from one of the several alimentation marts. On my way out the man behind the counter turned his attention to a smaller boy conspicuously waiting his turn: most natives simply did not form orderly queues.
“Faisal, how are you?” he asked, with a strained Middle Eastern accent. “Oh, is he Syrian?” I asked, turning to look at Faisal. A good number of Syrian refugees migrated to Algeria following the devastating civil war that continues. “Yes, Syrian.” Came the affirmation, and he took the boy’s shopping list, knocking several cans off of his shelves and into a pink plastic bag. He then threw in a handful of choco-caramels and sent Faisal on his way. I wondered if Faisal supported CRB and if, one day, Syrian immigrants would play for the Algerian national team.
There and then Malek called me, asking if I was lost. He was a Facebook acquaintance, but hugged me as a long-lost friend. We talked of his recent trip to Equatorial Guinea for the African Cup of Nations. Malek had a particular strut that exuded confidence, but he appeared less sure of my entering the press box than when we had spoken on the phone days before.
Like most of Algeria’s public sites, Stade 20 Aout, 1955 was re-named after an important historical date or figure. On August 20, 1955, the French army carried out a coordinated massacre, killing tens of thousands of innocent East Algerians. The venue has five entrances (between two stands): one for visiting support in the first stand, one for home support in the first stand, one for home support in the south curve, one for home support in the second stand, and one for journalists, players, and administrators also in the second stand.
Malek told me to sit tight outside the second stand and left to fetch a police officer to permit my entry. Both team buses were parked nearby, and CRB’s was plastered with cheap red decal. Seven portraits of CRB’s most decorated individuals were printed on the rear entrance.
As I stood behind the coach, transfixed by the aura of the black and white busts, an elderly man approached. “Look son, you have Lalmas, Achour, Saadi…” he said, pointing to each and rattling off their names.
“In those days,” he continued, finally turning to make eye contact, “you did not ask if CRB had won the match. You asked how many they had won by.” I thanked him and only later learned the proud man was co-founder of CRB’s supporters’ association.
It is fair to say that CRB were Algerian football’s first powerhouses. Very few teams could touch the Belouizdadi club then. From 1963-1970 they dominated the domestic scene, winning four league championships and three cups. Striker Hacene Lalmas was Algeria’s first bona fide post-independence superstar and twice led the Championnat in scoring.
When I was younger my father would compare Lalmas to Alfredo Di Stefano. Both scampered on powerful, stout legs and had receding hairlines. Like Madrid, CRB also donned all-white kits, though theirs bore a trademark sanguine V across the breast. The tips of the slanted V began at the tips of each shoulder and the met at the sternum. I had understood what the V symbolized.
Malek re-appeared ten minutes later with a policeman named Moh. Moh was responsible for the coordination of foot traffic and he personally walked me into the gate, past his nonplussed colleagues.
Stade 20 Aout’s press box was located above the stadium’s VIP seating. It was composed of eight booths where journalists of various publications had already begun to work. Malek popped his head into the first booth, recognised none there, and quickly shut the door with an apology. Malek’s good friend – also named Moh – sat in the second booth. We exchanged formalities and I learned that journalist Moh was a CRB specialist.
In the booth I caught a panoramic view of the pitch. The intimacy of the playing surface was my first observation. Stade 20 Aout has the obligatory running track, but the clay course only held two lanes, whose rounded corners inclined slightly. Behind the south curve, but before the forested hill, several apartment complexes rose above the stadium, providing its tenants with a birds-eye view of proceedings. Directly across from my vantage point, behind the first stand, another apartment complex ruled the backdrop. But this was Godzilla of HLMs. Ten thousand people could easily inhabit the colossus. The high-risers and concave running track generated a gladiatorial feel that heightened anticipation.
To my left, Moh and Malek began discussing possible result permutations. If CRB beat El Eulma, they would leapfrog two places into third. New French coach Alain Michel generated incontrovertible success at the historic club, and momentum brought with it a fresh enthusiasm; all 15,000 places were occupied 45 minutes before kick-off. I politely interrupted their musings to ask Moh a few questions about CRB.
“Did you ever think Islam Slimani (former CRB striker, current Sporting striker and Algeria international) would reach the heights he has?”
“Look, I’ve known Slimani for a long time. We hail from the same neighbourhood in Ain Benian, but I never thought he would achieve what he has. We knew he would play in Europe one day, but not at this level. He’s proving everyone wrong.”
“And what about Hacene Lalmas,” I added, thinking back to the proud co-founder outside the second stand, “why was he nicknamed El Kebch (the Ram)?”
“Because he was great in the air.” Pipped in Malek, but Moh tutted then corrected him. “Most will tell you he was named El Kebch because of his aerial prowess, but it was originally intended as an insult. When CRB played ES Setif in 1965, Lalmas confronted their defender Bendjaballah and headbutted him. Bendjaballah bled profusely and another Setif player yelled, ‘What, are you a ram?!’”
Anecdotes like Moh’s about Lalmas always managed to shatter my narrow Eurocentric footballing scope. Though I shouldn’t be, I’m always surprised to learn that the Algerian league also has its own share of legends, fables, corrupt presidents, and mythical stadiums. I thanked Moh repeatedly and began match preparation, using bib theory to guesstimate both team formations.
Conscious of CRB’s optimism, El Eulma adopted a conservative approach during the opening sequences of play. In any case, the visitors’ attacking trident of Walid Derrardja, Ibrahim Chenihi (Algeria international), and Fares Hamiti had enough spunk to orchestrate goalscoring opportunities on their own. CRB created very little in the opening half despite dominating possession.
Zakaria Draoui broke the deadlock moments into the second-half, with a daisy-cutter that flew past Nassim Ousserir. Utter catharsis ensued as Draoui was mobbed by teammates, and the 15,000-strong crowd shook the foundations of the rickety stadium to its brittle bones. In the 68th minute, referee Mohamed Benouza gifted a nothing penalty to El Eulma. Journalist decorum was immediately discarded in our booth as Moh shot several bras d’honneur at Benouza and a hostile crowd began insulting the man’s poor mother.
After a momentary delay, Fares Hamiti dispatched the controversial penalty, which Malek Asselah palmed away. The vulgar crowd, Moh and, I’m assuming, those overlooking from the Godzilla complex, all jumped to their feet and conjoined to bellow a collective and indignant roar.
The final few minutes were more comfortable for CRB, as El Eulma were reduced to ten men during an off-the-ball incident. Relief set over the Stade 20 Aout as the final whistle sounded and the home side linked hands for celebratory whoops at the foot of each stand. Malek and I quickly exited the press box to queue in front of the cheaply stickered ply-board, set up for the mixed zone. Azzedine Ait-Djoudi – MC El Eulma’s manager, and former manager of the Algerian U23 side – answered two questions and then gave us hell for asking more. “I’m finished, I already answered your questions. I won’t repeat the same answers over and over again.” He said, storming off.
Alain Michel was understandably warmer. He thanked the fans for their support, and promised to maintain a similar team dynamic. But his interview was also cut short, this time by intrusive supporters. They formed-a semi circle around Michel and loudly chanted his name.
After interviews were conducted and players had showered, Malek introduced me to Kamel, Bilal, and Hamid. We all made our way towards the car lot. But before reaching the unblemished Jetta, I caught sight of journalist Moh in my periphery. I quickly excused myself to pose a final question.
“Moh, sorry, can I ask you one last thing?”
“Anything, my brother.”
“The V on the kits. What do they stand for?”
He shrugged his shoulders blithely, and responded as if I had asked the most basic of questions. “Victory, of course.”