Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 9 December 2019

Algeria goes from political upheaval to footballing triumph

The nation's Africa Cup of Nations victory underscores the events of a tumultuous year
Riyad Mahrez and his Algeria teammates celebrate winning the Africa Cup of Nations. AFP

It may have been close run, but Algeria’s victory over Senegal in the Africa Cup of Nations final was well deserved. As the first time the nation has won the cup since it hosted the tournament in 1990, the final whistle was met with euphoria. Algeria’s players dove into a delirious crowd of 15,000 travelling fans, while cities in Algeria and France – home to much of the country’s diaspora – burst into loud, vibrant celebration. Some in Paris took it too far, ending up in police custody. As Algeria’s manager said after the game: “I am so happy for my people, who have waited such a long time.” The final capped a wonderful contest, displaying the very best of African footballing talent. Madagascar reached the quarter-finals while participating for the first time – theirs was one of many stories that made Afcon 2019 so special.

For ordinary Algerians, the victory provided some much-needed distraction from the country’s ongoing political crisis, and underscored the events of a climactic year that has seen the fall of the country’s long-time president Abdelaziz Bouteflika. There is some symmetry here, since vocal popular opposition to Mr Bouteflika's partly began in Algeria’s many football stadiums. The country’s interim leader, Abdelkader Bensalah, was in Egypt to witness the victory from the stands.

Every Friday for months, thousands have taken to Algeria’s streets demanding an overhaul of the political system. With the transition to a civilian-led government stalling, and presidential elections originally scheduled for July suspended because of a lack of candidates, Algerians are dissatisfied. With the military having acquired great power in the past, many accuse the army, now led by General Gaid Salah, of a crackdown.

Football alone cannot heal a nation’s wounds, but Algerians are certainly in need of something to cheer. With a series of impressive and dynamic performances, under the captaincy of Manchester City’s Riyadh Mahrez, the national side has delighted millions back home and abroad. Wherever Algeria’s political transition goes from here, the victorious return of the national team, bearing this major trophy, will be a source of national unity and pride.

Updated: July 20, 2019 05:28 PM