Kabylia, Algeria and Taking Huge Risks to Play Football for Your Homeland

Robert O'Connor@@hoovesonfireContributing Football WriterSeptember 5, 2018

LONDON, ENGLAND - Jun 09, 2018  team of Kabylia  during the closing ceremony at the CONIFA World Football Cup 2018 Final at Queen Elizabeth II Stadium (Enfield Town FC) on 09 June , 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images)
MB Media/Getty Images

Kabylia sits at the northern tip of Africa, on the lip of the Mediterranean. It is home to some 7.5 million people, with footballing glitterati such as Karim Benzema and Zinedine Zidane part of a richly woven football heritage. Nominally, legally, these lands belong to Algeria.    

But there is an "otherness" felt by the Kabylian Berbers about their place within Algeria. Ideologically, Kabylian people represent the possibility of a culturally pluralistic Algeria, an alternative to the more monolithic Arab-Islamic model of the country desired and pursued by the state government.

That feeling extends to football, says Lyes Imemmai, an Algerian national of Kabylian Berber heritage who is the head coach of a newly formed Kabylia national team. "They always tried to break us," Imemmai says of the Algerian response. "It's the independence movement that the Algerian police are afraid of, 100 percent.

"There is no possibility to talk football in Kabylia without touching the subject of independence."

On April 15, thousands took to the Paris streets to lend their voices to the cause of Kabylian liberation, with the diaspora out in force in a gesture of solidarity.

For one man, the time for affirmative action had already arrived.

In March 2018, Aksel Bellabbaci sat in a cafe in his hometown, Tizi Ouzou, sipping coffee, preparing for a press conference that would never take place.

Four years earlier, he had watched Algeria compete in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. This team, he decided, represented a nation to which he could not relate. He saw nothing of his own proud Kabylian Berber heritage in what was a culturally and ethnically Arab Algerian side. Bellabbaci sat on the idea until June 2017, when the bell of opportunity began to toll.

At that same moment, in Paris, another Kabylian exile, a popular 1970s singer named Ferhat Mehenni, was learning about the existence of the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (CONIFA), a registered charity based in Sweden, offering the sport's isolated and disenfranchised the chance to play competitive football.

Aksel Bellabbaci
Aksel BellabbaciB/R

Bellabbaci himself was the state secretary for sport in the Kabylian provisional government in exile, also based in Paris. Soon, he and Mehenni were exchanging notes. The road opened up for a new chapter in the Kabylian story: a national football team for Kabylia.

The third member of the founding triumvirate was Imemmai. He was at a ceremony in Brussels to mark the annual day of celebration of Kabylian culture when he first heard of the plans.

Preparations, he learned, had begun in Paris for a possible Kabylia team to represent the embattled territory at a football tournament in London for the unrecognized peoples of the world.

"That was when I first heard about Aksel," Imemmai says of those early meetings in June 2017. "So I looked him up and said, 'I'm available to help if you need it.'" A partnership was born.

The call went out on social media for footballers of Kabylian birth to make themselves known. The response was encouraging. Within weeks, Imemmai had flown to Kabylia to touch base with those who had shown interest, and over the course of days and weeks, a squad was assembled, amateurs all but brimming with heart.

What followed was a whirlwind of activity, as Imemmai and Bellabbaci's hastily assembled team raced through 10 games in a little over two months in a frantic dash to fulfill CONIFA's qualification criteria. With a traditional qualifying tournament impossible under the unique circumstances in which CONIFA works, member teams collected points by competing in "qualification" games against local sides, with the results collated into a global-league table to determine who progressed to London.

On September 2, the CONIFA board confirmed that Kabylia had placed among the top two African member associations, sealing the team's place at the finals barely three months after they first applied for membership. The same day, Algeria lost 3-1 in Zambia, eliminating them from the FIFA World Cup. Kabylia rejoiced. But the team's problems were just beginning.

Six months later, as Bellabbaci sipped his coffee in Tizi Ouzou, he was joined by two policemen. Later that day, a heavy police presence descended on his village and cut off routes in and out of town. "There were five police in total that I saw patrolling my garden," Bellabbaci says.

The Algerian national team failed to qualify for the World Cup.
The Algerian national team failed to qualify for the World Cup.AFP Contributor/Getty Images

Word of his and Imemmai's work with the Kabylia team had travelled predictably fast. The particular sensitivities of the local Tizi Ouzou government over the independence question had been pricked. The authorities were interested now.

"Fortunately, I know how the police system works," Bellabbaci says of his interrogation. "I said, 'Show me your documents, your papers.' I'm not going to back down. They didn't have the authority to shut me down. I was clever."

It began with just two officers. Then it was five. Soon, his house was surrounded, a convoy of black SUVs with smoked windows. In the end, exasperated with Bellabbaci's non-cooperative stance, the police arrested him.

"Twenty of them came to my house," he says. "That's when they took me. Was I scared? We're all human. But the feeling of a strong identity can get you through it."

He was held in custody for nine hours. Different tactics were used to try to break his spirit. By Bellabbaci's count, all 20 officers took a turn. Some made threats. Others feigned sympathy and were more conciliatory. One proposed alterations to the London plans, a compromise of sorts.

Some even made threats against his family. "They said that my family in France could get hurt if I continued my work. They even knew their names.

"So I asked the officials whether they had worked during the 1990s, when there were many problems with terrorism in Algeria. I asked whether they took any risks with their own families for what they believed in.

"They had no answer."

Bellabbaci believes the fear among officials was that his team would go to London and do something positive with the Kabylian name. This has been, above all else, an exercise in selling Kabylian culture to the world. It is counter to what the state wants back in Algeria.

The Berber flag hangs next to the national Algerian flag in Ath Mendes, south of Tizi Ouzou.
The Berber flag hangs next to the national Algerian flag in Ath Mendes, south of Tizi Ouzou.RYAD KRAMDI/Getty Images

Bleacher Report reached out to officials in the Algerian consulate in London for a response to Bellabbaci's allegations against the Tizi Ouzou police and for clarification of the government's position on Kabylia, but they declined to comment.  

"The main concern is that Kabylians are now witnessing similar events worldwide, such as in Catalonia, which are inspiring them to think that independent rule is more possible," says Dean Ammi, a journalist for DZ Football, a site specialising in Algerian football. "The Algerian state government feels that this could cause concern in terms of seeing the problem grow 10 times bigger, but I don't think we are at that stage yet. There are way more important matters that Kabylians worry about such as unemployment and inflation."

Ammi says the issue stems from the Arab vs. Amazigh (Berbers, which include the Kabylian people) argument. "Algeria gets referred to as an Arab nation, but Amazighs feel they are being left out when this term gets thrown around. Algeria has been ruled by corruption for a number of years now. The state fears nothing. They were one of few North African nations to survive the Arab Spring without any problems at all. I don't think Kabylia are any real threat."

The Kabylian protest has a rich, interlocking history with Algerian football. Jeunesse Sportive de Kabylie (JSK), from Bellabbaci's hometown, Tizi Ouzou, are the most titled club in Algeria's Ligue Professionnelle 1, the country's top flight.

On two occasions, in 1981 and 1990, the team brought the African Champions' Cup back to Kabylia.

They play their home games at the Stade du 1er Novembre 1954, so called after the date that Algeria won its freedom from France. The struggle for liberty has never been far from the Kabylian story.

Neither has tragedy. In 2014, at the end of a league game against USM Alger, JSK's Cameroonian striker, Albert Ebosse Bodjongo, died at the Stade du 1er Novembre after supporters threw projectiles toward the players as they walked from the pitch. Conflicting reports about the cause of death emerged, although the results of a government inquest were never published

JSK are unlike any other club in Algeria. They have been a jewel in the crown of the Berber cultural movement. As such, an uneasy relationship has existed between the club and the Algerian authorities.

In 1977, following protests at the Algerian Cup final against the marginalization of Berber culture, the state banned JSK's use of the Kabylie name, stripping them of their identity.

Today, the club contest allegations that Ebosse was killed by one of their own supporters. As such, club officials maintain that football authorities pursued the stadium closure imposed on them as punishment for political reasons.  

Imemmai is decked out in a yellow training top and migraine-inducing beach shorts. His tangled, wild mop of hair is pulled into a tight ponytail, which peeks out from beneath a brassy green baseball cap, and he is soaked from the rain.

He is remonstrating with the groundsman of a council-owned artificial pitch in Battersea, west London. Two members of Imemmai's team are wearing the wrong footwear, the groundsman explains. They will not be allowed to train today.

Most of these players met each other for the first time just the previous day, here in London. They are a young team, some only 17 and 18 years old. They have been plucked from a vast diaspora all over the world.

Starved of resources, the team manage themselves, looking after everything from travel to booking the pitch here in Battersea. There is no budget for extra hands.

These are just the lucky ones who made it. Six of the squad are absent, having been denied UK entry visas. The previous night, Imemmai slept for just two hours. His to-do list is a mash-up of red tape and tactical planning. At the back of it all, he dreams of leading Kabylia to glory in London.

"Don't you understand?" he demands. "We've come here for the World Cup!" The groundsman looks baffled, and this disarms him. Minutes later, all 16 of Imemmai's team are warming up on the groundsman's artificial pitch, wrong boots or not.

For Kabylians, resistance is in the bone.

Vussad @mirabdj

# kabylia teamed up for @CONIFAOfficial Good luck https://t.co/9R3nu9AdcK

The balance of power between the team's two leaders is fascinating. Throughout the week, Bellabbaci is most often found lounging wherever the sun penetrates the late spring cloud, a thin black tie setting off his finely tailored suit. He is calm, relaxed and seemingly never without a lit cigarette.

Imemmai, by contrast, is a bundle of nerves, directing and redirecting this young group in a near-constant frenzy. Each believes himself to be in charge, though it's not clear that either is.  

Being an international footballer for Kabylia is not for the fainthearted. This is, above all else, about risk. Imemmai and Aksel made no promises about what the consequences of joining up might be, however grave.

"Only players who have the heart and who are not afraid are here," says Imemmai. "And there are many who are afraid: afraid for their job, for their family, for the future of their life in Algeria.

"The police want to eliminate the Kabylian people, and we are concerned about this."

Omar Ammame was one of the players to answer the call. At around 5'10", he is stocky for a central defender.

Omar Ammame in action
Omar Ammame in actionB/R

Before leaving for London, he sought counsel from within his community about whether those risks were worth taking.

"It's an honour to wear these colours," Ammame says at the north London hotel that is the team's base for the duration of the tournament. He is dressed pristinely in a full suit and tie, hair slicked back, with a blue and yellow Kabylia badge pinned proudly to his lapel. He looks like the perfect ambassador.

Back in Algeria, the police made it clear they believed his involvement was politically motivated. Nothing, though, could have prepared him for the reception that greeted him at the airport at Bejaia as he left for London.

"I was told that the military would intervene," he says. "They said that when I come back, there will be a lot of problems for me."

For some, the risk was too great. A number of players withdrew from the squad ahead of the tournament, citing pressure and threats from the authorities.

"But I love Kabylia," Ammame says. "Why should I feel scared? London is the home of football. I would not let anything get in the way of me playing here in this great city."

Two days after Battersea, among a whirlwind of colour and noise at Slough Town's Arbour Park, just west of London, the harsh realities of life as international footballers collide with Kabylia.

They are thrashed 8-0 by Panjab, a team representing the India-Pakistan borderlands, in their first match of the group stage. At the end, Imemmai is the last to leave the pitch, stoically lingering to clear away the team's equipment.

"They all live here in England," he says of the UK diaspora community that comprises the Panjab team. "I've still got six players waiting to get on a plane. We cannot compete like this."

CONIFA and Kabylia form a perfect marriage. The organization is a broad church. Members represent a patchwork of ethnic minorities and partially recognized republics. For some, participation in London comes as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to manifest an identity.

"We want to say that people's identities matter and that you don't have to fit into the pigeonholes that have been created politically," says Paul Watson, the head of the World Football Cup's organizing committee. "Our flexible view of identity is more suited to the modern world than the existing one is."

Kabylia fans support their team in London
Kabylia fans support their team in LondonMB Media/Getty Images

This has been, above all else, about empowerment. This is football that transcends, even subverts the politics of the established international competitions. Here, the geopolitical map is ripped up and redrawn.

One of those Kabylian players held up by visa problems was Lyes Mihoubi. A right-back for ORB Akbou in Algeria's fifth tier, he was informed about the Kabylia team by a classmate at the University of Bejaia, where he studies monetary finance.      

Local police contacted Mihoubi and his family, he says, warning him against travelling to London to play for Kabylia. Police visited his university to advise him that playing for the team would be a mistake.

They also made contact with his father and used blackmail and threats against the family.

"I said I don't care what you do," Mihoubi says. "I am a football player, and I am a Kabylian. I am doing this, whatever the consequence."

The decision caused tensions at home. His family, naturally, was worried about what consequences he might face upon his return. "It was tense at home," he says. "We didn't know what might happen. But we reached an agreement. We are all Kabylians, and we're going to play football, so f--k everything.

"I am not afraid. I'm not worried about consequences. I am totally sure in what I am doing."

Following the Panjab mauling, in which Kabylia competed well for an hour against a better side before quick-fire third and fourth goals badly affected their confidence and concentration, the team acquitted themselves well in London.

A goalless draw against the United Koreans in Japan and a 4-0 defeat to Western Armenia weren't enough for qualification for the quarter-final. Instead, Kabylia entered the tournament's placement rounds, edging past Matabeleland, from western Zimbabwe, on penalties before putting eight past a well-supported Tibet. The side placed 10th overall, losing 2-0 to 2016 champions Abkhazia, from Eastern Europe, in their final game.

Omar Ammame is not sure what happens next
Omar Ammame is not sure what happens nextB/R

And then, it was over. On the final day, the Kabylians sat on the roof of Enfield Town's Queen Elizabeth II Stadium and watched the final in the rain with their new Abkhazian friends. The flags of both nations fluttered side by side in the wet breeze, a fraternity forged on the football field, immortalized by circumstances.

When it was done, Mihoubi said: "I would like to say thank you to Aksel and to Lyes. They've done so much. I just hope this is the start of the train. We can only grow from here. We are not criminals."

And what next? Celebrations, sure. But also recriminations.

Ammame says: "I'm very scared about returning. I've just put it aside to concentrate on the football.

"I don't know for sure what is going to happen."


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