“Algeria would leave a long-lasting impact on the greatest show on earth in the eventful summer of 1982”
Three months before the twelfth FIFA World Cup, Algeria met Ghana in the African Cup of Nations at Benghazi. The prolific Djamel Zidane of Algeria had cancelled the goal of George Alhassan 25 minutes later and after an hour of play, Algeria were leading courtesy of a goal by Assad. But Popoku Nti would equalize in the dying moments and forced the game for an extra-time affair where Alhassan would score again and ensure a place for Ghana in the final and would ultimately win the event by beating the host Libya.
Algeria – the runner-up in 1980 addition – impressed and the skills of their players impressed everyone during the event. They managed to book a place in Spain along with Cameroon and in an event where, for the first time, 24 teams would feature – both Algeria and Cameroon were expected to shine, especially Rachid Mekhloufi’s Algeria, who boasted with brilliant players like Zidane, Rabah Madjer and African Player of the Year – Lakhdar Belloumi.
“Our participation in the Africa Cup of Nations in 1980 and 1982 had given us some valuable experience at international level before heading to Spain,” said Belloumi.
They all had been playing together for years and most were based at home, Algerian law at the time prohibiting players from leaving the country before the age of 28.
These players, after all, were the heirs of those who in 1958 had given up professional careers in France to participate in Algeria’s war of independence.
The football team created by Algeria’s resistance movement, the Front de Liberation Nationale, travelled the world, showcasing Algerian spirit and skill and serving as a powerful propaganda tool in the fight for freedom.
When the country finally attained independence in 1962 the FLN team composed the core of the new national side.
“Because of this history, the bond between the Algerian national team and our people is uniquely strong and we took the comments by the Germans before the game as a slur on our population,” said Belloumi pointing out that several former FLN players were part of the coaching staff in 1982, including Abdelhamid Zouba and the co-manager Rachid Mekloufi.
“We had our parents at home, but we players also considered that we had our parents with us at pitch-side,” Belloumi explains.
“Those guys from the FLN were like our second fathers – in their day they abandoned fame and fortune to fight for their country and we were carrying on that fight. We were already a tight-knit group, but we were given extra motivation by the Germans, especially as we were very conscious that 1982 was the 20th anniversary of our independence. We were determined to uphold the dignity of our people.”
Algeria had improved a lot over the years and for any team in world football and it was not even cared enough by their illustrious opponent in the opening match – former West Germany, the European Champions.
The Germans were the hot favourites to win the event along with Brazil, France, England and Spain.
The Germans, having drawn against Tunisia four years ago in Argentina, inexplicably chose not to respect Algeria in the run-up to the match on June 16, 1982, at the Estadio El Molinon in Gijon, a city that would come to represent the greatest and most harrowing moments in the African nation’s football history.
“If we don’t beat Algeria, we’ll take the next train home,” said the German coach Jupp Derwall.
“We will dedicate our seventh goal to our wives and the eighth to our dogs,” the experienced Paul Breitner had claimed.
Another player quipped of playing with a cigar in his mouth.
“Some of us wondered if this was just a psychological ploy,” recalled defender Chaabane Merzekane.
“Whether they were only saying these things to lull us into thinking that they weren’t going to take us seriously – after all, who has ever heard of a German team that doesn’t do its homework.”
While the German statements kept the attention of the media intact – Algeria, on the other hand, kept their mouth shut and worked on how to play better against one of the best teams in the world.
We weren’t too happy about some of the comments coming from the German camp,” was Belloumi’s understated recollection, adding that the mocking was taken as “a slur on our population.”
Germany did not do their homework.
Triumph at Gijon
In front of 42000 spectators, the match kicked off on a hot and humid day.
The first half was a tight affair.
Algeria chose to be tactically better in guarding their backline while their shot-stopper – Medhi Cerbah – was kept busy by the German attackers who unleashed an array of attacks.
In the second half, West Germany were surprised by the fast, attacking and one-touch display of the Algerian midfield and frontline.
In the 54th-minute Madjer — who would be playing for Porto and five years later haunt Bayern Munich in a European Cup final — reacted most quickly after a shot from Belloumi that was saved by Harald Schunacher to give Algeria a deserved lead.
There Germans responded thirteen minutes later through Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, who equalized from the close-range.
That equalizer did not let down the tempo of Algeria, rather, they kept on enjoying in the middle.
From the kickoff, a brilliant 10-pass move concluded with Belloumi getting on the end of Salah Assad’s low cross to restore the lead – a brilliant finish, a brilliant goal and a deserving one for the team that had already outshone the European Champions.
“Our second goal was excellent,” recalled Belloumi in what he would always remember as the finest moment of his career. “The build-up consisted of ten passes, and the eleventh and final one involved me stroking the ball into the back of the net. It was a thing of beauty. That goal was a team effort. The ball was worked down the left by four or five players, and I always say that the whole team scored with me.”
The Germans were stunned and struggled to regroup and come back.
When the referee blew the final whistle, the Germans ended up with eggs against a team that had done their homework better rather than heating up the media.
There were raucous celebrations in Gijn’s El Molinon stadium and all over Algeria.
West Germany was plunged into mourning.
“This feels like the sinking of the Titanic, “declared the Suddeutsche Zeitung. Algeria’s players resisted the temptation to rub their noses in it.
“We respected the German team and we respected their country, we were just delighted that we had also made them respect ours,” says Belloumi.
“We went out to attack them, to play with our style: Algerian vivacity,” Merzekane said who put Breitner on to the back foot.
“We knew he liked to attack, that he was the best in the world at it, so we set out to exploit that – that was part of our tactical triumph. But we also dominated them technically and physically.”
“I just don’t understand,” was Derwall’s post-match reaction to the seismic defeat. He did have some grounds for the reaction given his side’s domination of possession and territory, forcing 16 corners to Algeria’s four.
“I still cannot believe that we have lost to Algeria. They played intelligently, waiting and counter-attacking. They surprised our defenders with their pace and we fell apart in the second half.”
Derwall would later admit that the Germans did have the videos of Algeria playing but he hadn’t shown them to the players for fear of being laughed at.
Well, Germany paid a heavy price – even though, Algeria’s campaign would end up in a tragic fashion.
Disgrace of Gijon
Algeria’s next match was against Austria, who beat them by 2-0.
“That’s where we showed our inexperience. We should have kept a cool head before that game and probably changed a couple of players but, in fairness to the Austrians, they had studied our style and knew we could be vulnerable on the counterattack,” said Belloumi.
Austria’s manager, Georg Schmidt, had been monitoring Algeria since the Africa Cup of Nations in Libya earlier that year.
Meanwhile, Germany bounced and thrashed Chile by 4-1 with Rummenigge smashing a hat-trick.
In their final group match against Chile, they took the lead by 3-0until the Latin American side cancelled out two goals and the match ended 3-2 in favour of Algeria, which meant, Algeria would become the first-ever African side to advance beyond the group stages of FIFA World Cup.
But on the following day, the scenario totally changed.
At Gijon, Horst Hrubesch of Germany would give Austria the lead within ten minutes and when both the teams realized, the result would suit the advancement of both the European teams, Germany and Austria stopped playing football!
In the remaining 80 minutes there were no shots, and barely any tackles, crosses or sprints. The game was no longer a contest, it was a conspiracy that cost Algeria – Austria and Germany would earn worldwide harsh criticism.
The Algerian fans in the Gijon stadium burned peseta notes to show their suspicions of corruption, while most of the Spaniards in attendance waved hankies throughout the second half in a traditional display of disdain. The next day newspapers in Spain denounced “El Anschluss” and there was outrage in Germany and Austria as well.
Eberhard Stanjek, commentating for the German channel ARD, almost sobbed during the match as he lamented, “What is happening here is disgraceful and has nothing to do with football. You can say what you like, but not every end justifies the means.”
The Austrian commentator, meanwhile, told viewers to turn off their sets and refused to speak for the last half-hour.
Former West German international Willi Schulz branded the German players “gangsters.”
But there had been no reactions from the players of the respective teams.
Even the head of the Austrian delegation, Hans Tschak, who made these extraordinary comments, “Naturally today’s game was played tactically. But if 10,000 ‘sons of the desert’ here in the stadium want to trigger a scandal because of this it just goes to show that they have too few schools. Some sheikh comes out of an oasis, is allowed to get a sniff of World Cup air after 300 years and thinks he’s entitled to open his gob.”
The pressure on FIFA grew for a re-match but the world governing body of football decided, the last group matches would be played simultaneously.
“Our performances forced FIFA to make that change, and that was even better than a victory,” Belloumi says.
“It meant that Algeria left an indelible mark on football history.”
“We weren’t angry, we were cool. To see two big powers debasing themselves in order to eliminate us was a tribute to Algeria. They progressed with dishonour, we went out with our heads held high,” said Merzekane.
They did meet Germany, again, 32 years later in Brazil, but that time, it was Germany who would have the last laugh.
Algeria would leave a long-lasting impact on the greatest show on earth in the eventful summer of 1982.