Algeria refused to be broken by this year’s Africa Cup of Nations final. No matter how much Senegal pressured them, they refused to let themselves be overwhelmed by their biggest game since 1990:
Towards the end of their final, Senegal’s players were frustrated and committing unnecessary fouls. Algeria had been doing that all game, and with time running out and in desperate need of an equalizer, some of Senegal’s players began losing their cool, falling into Algeria’s carefully-laid trap. After one of the fouls, the commentator for my feed sympathised with Senegal’s plight, but, reflecting, sad:
“Maybe it’s destiny as well. Maybe it’s destined to be about Algeria in this competition. To go all the way, undefeated.”
People have a habit of retrospectively forcing their lives, and the world as a whole, into a clean narrative. After an event, we tend to examine it as though it was destined to happen, rather than accepting that most things that happen, happen because of chance, chaos, and luck. Even with the chaotic nature of the world, however, it is still possible to set the stage and lay the groundwork, which makes a preferred event slightly more possible.
What does destiny, in this case, look like for Algeria, who went on to claim the AFCON title for the first time since 1990?
Destiny is going through the entire tournament undefeated. It’s Riyad Mahrez scoring a last-minute winner against Nigeria in the semifinal. It is Kalidou Koulibaly being out of the final for Senegal because he picked up too many yellow cards. It’s his replacement, Salif Sane, blocking a Baghdad Bounedjah shot in the second minute in such a way that it that shot up in the air, and looped over the goalkeeper — who stood immobilized by some mystical power which you might as well call ‘fate’ — as the ball went over him and into the goal.
After that goal, Senegal went on the offensive and stayed there, dominating the game, but no matter how close their battery shots came to the Algerian goal, they never quite came close enough.
The Algerian players, knowing that Senegal were more talented, nicked at their opponents’ heels, crowded out attackers, blocked shots, put their bodies on the line, and frustrated Senegal enough that the favorites couldn’t capitalize on their talent advantage. Senegal attacked and attacked, but the Algerian defense never broke.
A team like Senegal can be better than their opponents, but still lose a final because of a bizarre deflection. And a team like Algeria can get lucky in the first two minutes and defend well enough to win. Afterwards, we can say that Senegal were destined to lose and then say the inverse for Algeria. Fate smiled upon them.
Perhaps destiny understood what an Algerian victory would mean to Algerians everywhere. Before the game, Maher Mezahi wrote an article titled “What does an AFCON final mean to Algeria?” He quotes the manager, Djamel Belmadi, who said:
“For me, the national team and the country are the same...We represent a country with a glorious past, which is even an example for other countries. Our revolution and independence, it’s not something you find anywhere. They are anchored in all of us as Algerians, sometimes even unconsciously. In sport, the notion of sacrifice and solidarity are essential.”
If there’s any avenue that shows the connection between sports, politics, and identity, it’s international football. Within it, all of the power of sport is amplified. So is all of its uselessness.
Algerians have been protesting in the streets since February of this year, refusing to vote for a new President until members of former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s cabinet have stepped down. The people are locked in a stalemate with the interim government and the army. The people of Algeria want to have a clean start, a fresh era, and they’re in the streets fighting for it.
This AFCON victory won’t do much to make that fight possible. It can’t force the government officials to step down. But what it can do is provide something like solidarity. Though the title won’t do much in the streets, Algerians can look at their national team, and feel pride in who they are. They know that the players who won that title were representing and fighting for them.
Algeria’s celebrations are legendary. Before their games even start, there are always videos of Algerians crowding in cities around the world and celebrating — celebrating that the team is playing its all, win or lose. And when they win, those celebrations are multiplied by 100. It gets wild. I was in Lyon around a crowd of Algerians when they beat Guinea, and it didn’t take long for the pepper spray to fly in response. Many people are proud and celebrate their team wildly, but none I’ve ever seen like Algerians.
When Algeria were about to face Nigeria in the semifinal, I messaged one of my Algerian friends to tease her about what I thought would be an easy Nigeria victory. I said that Nigeria was the only African country that matters [ed note: Michael Essien is from Ghana, so Zito is obviously wrong]. She replied that Nigerians are too cocky. When I replied, “So are Algerians,” she said, “Algerians are proud. It’s not the same thing.”
After they won, videos started flooding in of Algerians all over the world celebrating. In London. In Paris. In the stadium in Egypt, and of course, in the streets of Algeria. Flares, flags, and, I assume, pepper spray: Algerians were in the streets showing off that pride.
Maybe destiny doesn’t exist, and there’s no real point to talk about who deserved or didn’t deserve to win a game. What is important (and wonderful) about the AFCON final is that while Algerian people are fighting for the future of their country, the team that represents them to the rest of the world went out, fought across the pitch, gave everything they had, and became champions of Africa.