The away football team

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The away football team

Alessio Perrone writes about Algeria’s marginalized Kabylia region. There politics has come into football.

There is usually a party after a football team qualifies for the world cup. When Peru qualified for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the country celebrated so much that an earthquake detector recorded a, earthquake by mistake. In Algeria, Kabylia qualified for the 2018 CONIFA World Cup, the Confederation of Independent Football Associations. This is for minorities and unrecognized nations. But when Kabylia qualified, manager Axel Bellabbaci was arrested and questioned for hours.

Kabylia is a small area on Algeria’s north coast. Its population has protested for recognition for many years. The story of its football team is an example of the political problems in the area.

Kabyles are Algeria’s biggest group of Berbers. The Berbers are a family of north African people. They have kept their traditions, culture, and language for hundreds of years. Berbers call themselves Amazigh (‘free people’ in Tamazight) and are an important minority in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya. There are between six and eight million Kabyles in Algeria, and at least a million abroad.

After Algeria’s independence from France in 1962, Kabyles and other Berbers protested against the marginalization of their culture.

Nourredine Bessadi advises the human rights NGO Minorities Rights Group on Amazigh issues. He says, ‘Since the 1960s, Algerian authorities have tried to make the country “Arab”, and tried to make Algerians and Kabyles have another identity.’

The Tamazight language is at the centre of Kabyle protest. Earlier versions of the Algerian constitution named Arabic the only ‘national’ and ‘official’ language and said no to all Tamazight words. And so Kabylia was not happy.

There have been protests in Kabylia for years, asking for recognition of the Amazigh part of the country. The change came with the ‘Black Spring’ of 2001, after the death of a young Kabyle student at the hands of the authorities. There were demonstrations and they were repressed. About 130 demonstrators were killed.

In 2016, Tamazight was finally an official language in Algeria, but this hasn’t made Kabylia happy. Some activists say the culture is still marginalized, and that Tamazight isn’t used in the legal system, and it isn’t mandatory in schools. Vaz at Vrahem is the secretary general of the football team. He says, ‘There aren no police in the streets to stop you from speaking Kabyle,’ says ‘But everything is still Arabized.’

Activists from home and abroad have now started the Movement for the Self-Determination of Kabylia (MAK), which asks for Kabyle identity and the right to choose their own future.

Hugh Roberts is a professor of North African history and an expert on Kabylia. He is not sure about the Movement. He says it doesn’t represent the population and he thinks the idea of a Kabyle national team is strange. But economic marginalization and protests against traditional political groups are bringing support for the MAK. The MAK also supports the football team and the growing number of Kabyles who no longer feel they are Algerians.

The Algerian authorities sometimes ban meetings. They stop and question MAK activists. They take away some passports and many Kabyles decide to leave the country.

This year, the politics came into football. Bellabbaci was freed after hours of questioning. The team played qualifying matches in secret to avoid problems. When it comes to the June CONIFA cup in London, it is likely they will choose players from Kabyles at home and abroad. This will show that the team may be the away team in London, just as it is the away team at home.

Alessio Perrone is a journalist who likes to write about under-reported topics. He worked at New Internationalist between 2016 and 2018. You can find him on Twitter at @alessioperrone


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).