No matter how much we try to overlook this glaring fact, politics and football are intricately intertwined.
Hitler, Mussolini and Franco exploited the popularity of the sport in Europe in the 1940’s and 50’s for the benefit of their own fascist ideologies. The 1978 World Cup in Argentina proved to be the ideal pretext to showcase the world how harmonic life in Argentina was under dictatorship. North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un’s state controlled media appeared to have spread falsified reports of North Korea’s exploits at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil; they didn’t even qualify for that competition. In short, the beautiful game has been used as an apparatus for spreading propaganda throughout its history.
Born during the First World War in French occupied North Africa, Ahmed Ben Bella grew up watching this strange sport the settlers brought with them. After the war, the popularity of the game attracted both the colonizers and the colonized as a means of entertainment and more importantly, as a medium to let go of the harrowingly poignant emotions that the war left at its wake.
Ben Bella lived a turbulent life growing up in Algeria, frequently clashing with his French teachers at school over the political and cultural disparities between the Algerians and their French rulers. Football was one of the few recreational activities that made him happy.
His political credo was already at a surprisingly heightened stage for someone as young as him. “When I maneuvered at speed against the enemy,” Bella recalled his experiences on high-school pitches, “nobody asked me whether I was European or Algerian — I either scored or I didn’t, and that was that. I was responsible only to myself for success and failure alike.”
With employment in the business or administrative services scant to come by, enlisting in the French army was one of the few avenues for advancement for Algerian men under the French colonization. After dropping out of high-school, Ben Bella voluntarily enlisted himself in the French army in 1936.
Posted in the football mad French city of Marseille, his on field talents soon caught the eyes of one of France’s biggest clubs, OIympique de Marseille.
Ben Bella has been described as a strong centre half who could also play in midfield. He made his debut for Marseille on April 21st in the Coupe de France in the 1939-40 season against FC Antibes. Marseille absolutely destroyed Antibes on the pitch by scoring nine goals. Ben Bella was also among the scorers.
Unfortunately, despite his obvious footballing talents, that was Ben Bella’s one and only game for Marseille. On May 10th, German Panzer tanks descended on to Sedan in northern France thereby collapsing the French army and subsequently cutting the country in half forming two different factions.
He was offered a lucrative contract by Marseille but he returned to Algeria and enlisted himself in the army again. He eventually joined the Free France forces under Charles de Gaulle.
Speaking to French journalist Jean Cau in the show ‘Grand Debate’ in 1981, Ben Bella reminisced on his football adventure in Marseille. “I was very well paid. Believe me, I had a future. I was centre-half for Olympique de Marseille and was offered a contract.”
Being a natural athlete, Ben Bella made a fine soldier. He was awarded with the Croix de Guerre, a prestigious French military award for exceptional handling of an anti-aircraft post during the German invasion in 1940.
In 1944 in Monte Cassino, he dragged his wounded CO to safety in the face of enemy fire before taking command of his battalion. This bravado on the battlefield won him the Médaille militaire, the third highest award of the French republic. Charles de Gaulle himself kissed him on both cheeks while presenting him the medal.
From then onwards, it was evident that no one would ever speak of Ben Bella’s football career which pales in comparison to his military life.
After the end of the Second World War, he became one of the prominent leaders in the Algerian Independence Movement. His role in Algeria’s fight for independence made him a popular figure in the country. He eventually became the country’s Prime Minister, and subsequently its first President in 1963.
The French military had once marked him as “intelligent and dangerous.” But despite surviving numerous assassination attempts spanning over six decades, Ahmed Ben Bella took his final breath at the age of 95 on 11th April 2012.
Perhaps one single game for a reputed football club does not count him as a professional footballer in the truest of senses, but Ben Bella, like many other leaders during the turbulent years of the 20th century, firmly believed that this European Colonial game called football was an excellent medium of expression.
Like his African nationalist counterparts, he believed the sport is an important tool to propagate the desire for freedom, justice and equality by the African populace
Ben Bella always wanted his teammates to pass the ball so that he could score,” a former schoolmate recalled. “He was the same in politics.”