'Every dimension of society can be found within football'

Stanislas Frenkiel is an expert on Algerian football, award winning author and lecturer at the Faculty of Sports and Physical Education of the University of Artois. He completed his doctorate on the history of Algerian professional footballers in France.

On November 27th, Stanislas Frenkiel will be leading an expert tour through the special exhibition ‘Foot et Monde Arabe’ at the FIFA World Football Museum in Zurich. This week, we sat down with him to discuss the importance of football in Algeria, how Algerian players where treated in France after the Algerian war and why he likes to meet players.

Stanislas, what does football mean to you? What is your favourite (national or club) team?

A crucible of shared experience, memory and emancipation, football has been part of every social struggle since the end of the 19th century. A theatre of dreams of improved social status, glory and mobility, it functions in favour of workers, women, 'colonised' peoples, homosexuals, the disabled etc. All these 'minorities' have had to fight for the right to play it and spread their message through it.

On a personal level, I've always been more interested in the players than the game itself. Beyond their performances, I enjoy meeting them and collecting their precious accounts of their development, careers and subsequent career changes. I try to treat footballers as social beings. That means studying what lies beneath the facade of their social status: their personal, family and social stories. The oldest player I met was Habib Draoua, better known as 'Derdour'. I met him in Oran, Algeria and he played for Le Havre in 1937. Meeting him was an unforgettable moment.

You are an expert in Algerian football. What is the social significance of football in Algeria?

Football today is the most popular sport of all and it has a long history in Algeria. Indeed, Algeria was the first French colonial territory to be touched by the sport. If young people were able to appropriate football by copying foreign sailors and tourists, it's very probable that colonial occupation by the metropole and its settlement policy played a predominant role. As a result, football appeared in Algeria at the end of the 19th century and developed quickly at a community level, more so than in the other French colonies or protectorates.

In Oran, in a region subjected to colonial control, the unruly bourgeois members of the Club des Joyeusetes, founded in 1894, claim to be the oldest team of all, even though they did not start playing football until three years later, the year that Club Athletic d'Oran were formed.

How were the members of the FLN team received in France when they returned to play for French clubs after Algeria gained its independence?

At the end of the Algerian War, the FLN team players still young enough to rejoin their clubs made contact with them. The appeal of the former metropole, where they had experienced freedom, remained strong. They wanted to make up for lost time, sample again the adrenaline of top-level football and earn high salaries. Also, back home, instability continued to reign.

In France, the suspension of their contracts was officially lifted on 29 June 1962, and they were quickly approved by the judicial committee of the National Football League. Nine players returned to France for the 1962/63 season, and although they seem to have been treated properly by their club presidents, coaches and team-mates, the sporting status of those players had an impact on their career paths. At Saint-Etienne, who could fault Rachid Mekhloufi for scoring 14 goals in 20 matches at the end of the 1962/63 season and winning three league titles and a French Cup between then and 1968?

In the exhibition, we talk about the French perspective on the first game between France and Algeria in 2001 that had to be stopped due to fans running onto the pitch. How was the game received in Algeria?

A wind of renewal seemed to be blowing on Franco-Algerian relations before the game. In both countries, football is the most-loved sport. It was time to erase that troubled history and relaunch cooperation through a friendly match. Even the shockwaves of the World Trade Center attack on 11 September, which brought about widespread suspicion of Muslims, couldn’t change that. At a time when peace was threatened around the world, the majority of French and Algerian journalists published special editions on the coming reunion.

But with ten million people watching on television, the legacy of colonial resentments came into clear view. Although there was no physical violence aside from a train partially vandalised, the event shocked people. The day after the game, both the French and Algerian media expressed their dismay. In Paris, and Algiers, there was bitterness, anger and shame. It became difficult to avoid generalisations. Different forms of xenophobia, especially Islamophobia, resurfaced.

Is football a cultural thing in your eyes?

Football is a 'total social fact', to borrow an expression from the anthropologist Marcel Mauss. Every dimension of society can be found within it and expresses itself through it: politics, the economy, culture, education etc. Despite its ideal of neutrality and fair play, it cannot escape the social determinants which structure it.

Why do you think that it is important for a museum to present an exhibition like 'Foot et Monde Arabe'?

Partly because it's magnificent thanks to its archives in every form: documents, photographs, videos, football shirts, trophies, witness accounts etc. The FIFA Museum made an audacious decision by choosing to hold this exhibition, which was a popular success at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. In Zurich, visitors will be able to learn the importance of football and the sport's leading protagonists in Arab societies.

At a time when some Europeans are tempted by an uninhibited Islamophobia as well as the poison of cultural isolationism and the ghost of imperialism, this exhibition provides the keys to understanding the political and social stakes that have structured the Arab world since the start of the 20th century.

Do you have a message you would like to end with?

Come and visit the FIFA Museum. Everyone passionate about the history of the sport can also subscribe to the new 'Temps de sport' channel on YouTube. See you soon.