Algiers, Algeria – Derby days in Algeria‘s capital are typically festive occasions.
From the working class neighbourhoods of Bab El Oued and the Casbah to central Algiers, public spaces are brimming with jersey-wearing supporters of MC Alger (MCA) and USM Alger (USMA).
But on Thursday, as the two rival clubs prepared to battle for the local bragging rights, fans seemed more interested in the political arena than the football pitch.
“I love MC Alger, I never miss a match,” explained Abdellaoui, a vendor of football scarves and flags in the Lower Casbah.
“But right now, this is more important,” he added, pointing to an Algerian flag perched on his cart.
A customer nearby jumped in: “If I just suffered a death in the family, how could I celebrate my friend’s wedding? We have to fix the problems in the country before we can have fun in the stadium.”
|‘I never miss a match … But right now, this is more important’ [Maher Mezahi/Al Jazeera]|
Since February 22, hundreds of thousands of people have been protesting in Algiers and other parts of the country against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika‘s bid to run for a fifth term in elections next month.
As public pressure grew, the 82-year-old Bouteflika was earlier this week forced to withdraw from the race, postpone the April 18 polls and organise a national conference to restructure the constitution.
The moves, however, have failed to appease protesters, who have continued taking to the streets to denounce what they see as the government’s attempt to illegally extend the ailing leader’s hold on power.
On the streets, both MCA and USMA have been hugely influential in giving a voice to protesters – including the song La Casa del Mouradia by the latter’s fans which has been completely adopted by Algerians from all walks of life.
The song was named after Netflix’s La Casa de Papel (Money Heist) TV series and lambasts Bouteflika’s four terms of governance.
“In the first [term], they tricked us with ‘reconciliation’,
In the second [term] it became clear: ‘La Casa del Mouradia’,
In the third [term] the country suffered due to personal interests,
In the fourth [term] the puppet died and the problem remains.”
MCA supporters also have a song that has seeped into the movement – Fi Sog Elil, which translates as The Night Market.
“Ask me why? I’ll tell you to look underneath you,
There are people who have lunch but not dinner,
Ask me how? I’ll tell you it’s just like this,
The authorities have left nothing,
Ask me since when? I’ll tell you for a while,
In fact, I don’t even remember,
None of us have lived a good life…”
|Algerian football has a saying that the spectacle is not on the pitch but in the stands [Maher Mezahi/Al Jazeera]|
On derby days, there are usually tens of thousands of supporters cramming into narrow ticket booth queues three to four hours before kick-off.
But on Thursday, movement wasn’t nearly as restricted.
Earlier in the week, rumours began circulating that the rival fans would choreograph a “tifo” display before the match, brandishing an anti-establishment message for the world to see. However, the two groups of supporters quickly denied any possible cooperation, regardless of their shared stance against “Le Pouvoir” – a vague term Algerians use to refer to the shadowy clique of politicians, high-ranking military officials and oligarchs who they believe have been running the country.
Late on Wednesday evening, two of MCA’s biggest ultra groups decided to boycott the match, which on Thursday left some of the lower blocks of the Stade du 5 Juillet conspicuously empty. USMA’s supporters, however, showed up en masse.
As the match went under way, MCA largely dominated first-half possession on the pitch – but USMA won the all-important battle of the terraces. There’s a saying in Algerian football that the spectacle is not on the pitch but rather in the stands.
USMA fans sang Qilouna, a song that criticises the government’s exploration of shale gas reserves in the Algerian Sahara.
On the stroke of half time, Mehdi Benaldhia put MCA ahead and, for a fleeting moment, 20,000 spectators were solely concentrated on a football match.
|For some fans, Algeria’s political upheaval overshadowed the match [Maher Mezahi/Al Jazeera]|
After the break, every member from the USMA supporters’ Ouled El Bahdja group raised their open palms and belted out “Oh, oh, there won’t be a fifth [term]”.
Both sides went on to trade goals in the dying moments of the match but the most captivating moment of the second half came in the final five minutes.
With the two teams deadlocked at 2-2, spontaneous unified chants broke out from the east and west stands.
The first rallying cries responded to Ahmed Ouyahia, Algeria’s recently deposed prime minister, who had previously told the tossing-flower protesters that that was how the war had started in Syria.
“Oh Ouyahia, Algeria isn’t Syria!” echoed throughout the bowels of the stadium.
These chants were immediately followed by those in attendance addressing Bouteflika, who has yet to resign after delaying the elections despite his term coming to an end in late April.
“Bouteflika, there won’t be a fifth term,” the fans sung.
Meanwhile, the proceedings on the pitch ended with MCA converting a dubious penalty in the final moments of the match – and claiming the local bragging rights.
As spectators filed out, focus shifted from the hotly contested football match to Friday’s mass protests, which went on attract the highest number of demonstrators yet.
One USMA supporter from out of town even laughed off the loss.
“We are all still first in the league, and tomorrow [protesting on the streets], we are going to win!”