• Share it:

A Century Of Maghrebi Football

Football was brought to Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia at the beginning of the 20th century by the Europeans who had settled in those three countries. Since then, countless Maghrebi players have paraded their talents across Africa and Europe.
Ask any Atletico Madrid fan of a certain age about the Moroccan, Larbi Ben Barek, and his eyes will light up. The player in question, nicknamed “The Black Pearl”, was a member of the Spanish club’s “crystal forward line” 60 years ago, the best in the club’s entire history. Ben Barek, who played for Atletico between 1948 and 1953, won two Spanish league titles and was the first Maghrebi footballer to make a name for himself internationally. Before moving to Spain, he had made headlines in France with Stade Francais and Marseille and thanks to him, African football was able to begin to carve out a niche for itself in Europe. Ben Barek was also the first Moroccan to play for France, making four appearances, and was emulated by his compatriot, Adderrahmane Belmahjoub, who became the first Arab African to play at the World Cup after appearing for France at the 1954 FIFA World Cup™ in Switzerland.
After these two players came a whole series of fine North African footballers who wrote their names on the international scene in letters of gold, such as Mohamed Timoumi, Badou Zaki and Noureddine Naybet of Morocco, Rachid Mekhloufi, Rabah Madjer, Salah Assad and Lakhdar Belloumi of Algeria and Tarik Dhiab, Hammad Agrebi and Hatem Trabelsi of Tunisia.
These players and others led Algeria to two FIFA World Cups™ (Spain ’82 and Mexico ’86), Morocco to four (Mexico 70, Mexico ’86, USA ’94 and France ’98) and Tunisia to another four (Argentina 78, France ’98, Korea/Japan 2002 and Germany 2006). Morocco were also victorious at the 1976 Africa Cup of Nations and were emulated by Algeria in 1990 and Tunisia in 2004.
Despite all these triumphs, Maghrebi football is not as dominant as it used to be in Africa, and teams such as Cameroon, Nigeria, Cote dTvoire and Egypt have started to take over. Tarek Diva, who starred for Tunisia in the 1978 FIFA World Cup™ in Argentina and became the first (and thus far only) Tunisian to be crowned African Footballer of Year in 1977 thinks that Maghreb countries have lost ground in Africa because they lack the structure and means to offer their players a high level of physical preparation. According to Dhiab, the greater physical prowess of players from other African countries makes them more sought after by European clubs than Maghrebi players.
The experiences that players from Cameroon, Cote dTvoire or Nigeria have gained at European clubs has benefited their national teams, whose level has improved. “The European sides look for speed and power. Our players are technically good, but lack physical preparation. Our football lacks means and structure. Maghrebi football lives for the day without thinking much about the future. Good footballers might come through, but in order for a national team to succeed you need fifteen or twenty quality players,” says Dhiab.
The legendary Tunisian midfielder thinks that there were no successors to the great Maghrebi teams of the 70s and 80s due to a lack of resources. “The Tunisian side of 1978, the Algerian side of 1982 and the Moroccan side of 1986 were exceptions. This led to some years of glory, but no continuity. They were exceptional generations, but if you look at France or Brazil, they have continuity because they have done their work properly,” explains Dhiab.
Rabah Madjer, the legendary Algerian forward who played for his country at two FIFA World Cups™, won the Africa Cup of Nations in 1990 and was the hero of Porto’s European Cup triumph in 1987, agrees that Maghrebi football is going through a difficult period. “Our football is not in the best of health. Our players are more technical than physical and these days physical prowess takes precedence, as demonstrated by the fact that European clubs opt for footballers from other African countries who are less technical and mote physical,” says Madjer.
Madjer’s comments are corroborated by the fact that the last Maghrebi winner of the African Footballer of the Year award was the Moroccan, Mustapha Hadji, ten years ago. Before that, there had been three previous winners from Morocco, Ahmed Faras (1975), MohamedTimounti (1985) and Badou Kaki (1986), two from Algeria, Lakhdar Belloumi (1981) and Rabah Madjer (1987) and one from Tunisia, Tarik Dhiab (1977) — to date, seven Maghrebi players have therefore won the African Footballer of the Year award. Labri Ben Barek would probably have been the first recipient of such an honour if it had been in existence prior to 1970, when Salif Keita of Mali became the first-ever winner.
There were also three Algerians who made their mark on French football at the end of the 1950s and would have been in the running for the award, namely Abdelaziz Ben Tifour (Nice and Monaco), Rachid Mekhloufi (Saint-Etienne) and Mustapha Zitouni (Monaco).
Mekhloufi and Zitouni were in with a chance of playing for France at the 1958 FIFA World Cup™ in Sweden, but fled France on the outbreak of the Algerian war and instead formed the first-ever Algerian national team with other compatriots. Mekhloufi won the 1957 Army World Cup in Argentina with France. He was also top scorer in the French league championship in 1966. He won four caps for France between 1956 and 1957 and the league with Saint-Etienne in 1957, 1964, 1967 and 1968. However, it was not until the 70s and 80s that Maghrebi football truly came of age and Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco shone at Argentina ’78, Spain ’82 and Mexico ’86 respectively.
Tunisia have the honour of being the first African country to win a match at the FIFA World Cup™ following their 3-1 win over Mexico at Argentina ’78. That side included Tarek Dhiab, midfielder Hammad Agrebi, nicknamed “The Magician”, striker and captain Temime Lahzami and winger Nejib Gommidh, who scored his country’s second against the Mexicans.
Morocco also made history as the first African team to qualify for the knockout stages, topping their group in Mexico ’86 after goalless draws against England and Poland and a 3-1 win over Portugal. That side is particularly feted for midfielder Mohamed Timoumi, goalkeeper Badou Zaki and strikers Abdelkrim “Ferry” Krimau and Aziz Bouderbala. Krimau, who played for Bastia in the 1978 UEFA Cup final, and Bouderbala, who played for Sion in Switzerland and French clubs Matra Racing and Lyon, were the only two Moroccans at the 1986 FIFA World Cup™ who did not play in their home country. Badou Zaki, who played for Mallorca between 1986 and 1992 and won the African Footballer of the Year award in 1986, was declared the continent’s best goalkeeper of the 20th century by the Confederation of African Football. Midfielder Mohamed Timoumi, who was African Footballer of the Year in 1985, made his name at FAR Rabat, although he also played for Lokeren in Belgium and Spanish club Murcia.
Another notable player was Abderrazik Khairi, who scored two goals against Portugal in Morocco’s historic win at Mexico ’86. Mohamed Timoumi, the star of that team along with goalkeeper Badou Zaki, agrees with Madjer and Dhiab on the importance of physical preparation. “That team of 1986 had prepared very well physically, which accounted for 50 or 60% of our success. The step we took by qualifying from the group stage inspired the whole of African football, as Cameroon showed at the following FIFA World Cup™ when they reached the quarter-finals,” says Timoumi.
Although Timoumi agrees with Madjer and Dhiab that Maghrebi football is going through a difficult period, the legendary Moroccan player is optimistic and believes that things could change. “There are good players in our countries, you just have to prepare them well and guide them. We are of average level at the moment, but I think that football associations in the Maghreb have the motivation to change things and that the good results will return,” says Timoumi.
Before the generation of players led by Timoumi, other Moroccan players had emerged on the international scene, such as Abdelmajid Dolmy, a defender whose career spanned two decades from 1970 to 1991 and who played in the 1970 and 1986 World Cups and won the 1976 Africa Cup of Nations in Ethiopia. The team that won the Africa Cup of Nations in 1976 also featured Ahmed Faras, who was African Footballer of the Year in 1975 and is Morocco’s all-time leading striker with 41 goals.
Finally, Algeria almost became the first African side to qualify for the second round of the FIFA World Cup™ at Spain ’82 after beating West Germany 2-1 and Chile 3-2 and losing 2-0 to Austria. The Algerians would only go out if West Germany beat Austria 1 -0 in the last match in the group; any other result would see the North African team progress. However, the West Germans won 1-0 in a match which gave rise to suspicions of a pact between the two European neighbours and Algeria were knocked out. The star of that side was Rabah Madjer, who scored the first goal in Algeria’s historic win over the Germans. “In that team there were many footballers who had spent a lot of time playing together for the junior national teams. This is no longer the case in our national teams, as can be seen from the poor results,” says Madjer.
Madjer’s team-mates at national level included die midfielder Lakhdar Belloumi, who scored Algeria’s second goal against Germany and was African Footballer of the Year in 1981, forward Mustapha Dahleb, who is one of Paris Saint-Germain’s best-loved players, winger Salah Assad, who was at PSG and Mulhouse, and midfielder Ali Bencheikh, who was runner-up in the African Footballer of the Year awards in 1978. These were the glory days of Maghrebi football, which have never been repeated. Algeria have not qualified for the FIFA World Cup™ since Mexico ’86, while Morocco returned in USA ’94 and France ’98 but were unable to make it past the first round.
Tunisia have been the most successful of the three countries in recent years, having qualified for France ’98, Korea/ Japan 2002 and Germany 2006, although they fell at the first hurdle on all three occasions. However, the lack of results has not prevented great footballers from emerging from the Maghreb.
Algeria won the Africa Cup of Nations in 1990, their only triumph to date, with players such as striker Cherif Oudjani, who scored the winner in the final against Nigeria. That team also featured midfielder Moussa Saib, who played for Auxerre, Valencia and Tottenham, and Mahieddine Meftah, who holds the appearances record for Algeria (107) and is also the man with the most Algerian league titles (1989, 1990 and 1995 with JS Kabylie and 2002, 2003 and 2005 with USM Alger).
Morocco have also produced good players such as midfielder Mustapha Hadji, who was African Footballer of the Year in 1998 and played in the 1994 and 1998 FIFA World Cups™, while his club career included spells in France (Nancy), Portugal (Sporting), Spain (Deportivo La Coruna and Espanyol) and England (Coventry City and Aston Villa). The best-known Moroccan player of recent years is Noureddine Naybet, however, who has 115 caps for his country. After winning the African Cup of Champion Clubs in 1992, he played for Nantes, Sporting Lisbon, Deportivo la Coruna, with whom he won the Spanish league title in 2000 and the Spanish cup in 2002. After eight years in Spain, he played for English club Tottenham Hotspur for two years. He also played in six Africa Cup of Nations and the 1994 and 1998 FIFA World Cup™.
Tunisia has produced players such as right-back Hatem Trabelsi, who played for Ajax and Manchester City, striker Adel Sellimi, who was at Nantes, Jaen and Freiburg and is Tunisia’s second-highest scorer of all time with 20 goals, goalkeeper Ali Boumnijel, defender Khaled Badra or midfielder Zoubier Baya, who became the first player of Arab origin to captain a Bundesliga side at his club, Freiburg. These players formed the backbone of the highly successful Tunisian side of 1998-2006, which took part in three FIFA World Cup™ and won the Africa Cup of Nations in 2004.
Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia have been unable to repeat their exploits of the 70s and 80s but still have a number of players who have made it in Europe such as the Moroccans Houssine Kharja (Siena), Tarik Sektaoui (Porto) and Marouane Chamakh (Bordeaux), the Algerians Karim Ziani (Marseille) and Brahim Hemdani (Rangers) or the Tunisians Karim Haggui (Bayer Leverkusen), David Jemmali (Bordeaux), Jawhar Mnari (Nuremberg) and Francileudo Santos (Toulouse), the latter of whom is of Brazilian origin.
The future looks promising, particularly for Morocco and Tunisia, who have been successful in World Cups at youth level, with Morocco finishing fourth in the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2005 in the Netherlands. Striker Mouhssine Iajour also finished sixth in that tournament’s goalscoring charts with three goals. Tunisia, meanwhile, reached the last sixteen of the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2007 in Korea, losing to France in extra time. The standout player in that team was Nour Hadhria, who netted three times and was the tournament’s eighth-highest goalscorer. These new generations fill the Maghreb, the cradle of African football, with hope of a return to the glory days of the 70s and 80s.