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Page last updated at 19:50 GMT, Saturday, 19 April 2008 20:50 UK

Algeria pacesetters

James Copnall
BBC Sport, North Africa

Algeria national team players
The Desert Warriors have been impressive since independence

Imagine Algeria-born Zinedine Zidane - in his playing days - quitting the France national team right before a major international tournament.

He then decides to leave the European country in order to join a new team from a rebel army fighting France.

It sounds far fetched.

But it's exactly what happened 50 years ago this week.

In 1958, as the French national team prepared for the World Cup in Sweden, Algeria was engaged in a bloody war of Independence against the French colonial masters.

Several Algerians were playing professionally in France and a few were part of the French national team.

10 footballers, acting in the greatest secrecy, quit France, and went through Italy to reach the Tunisian capital Tunis.

Among them were Mustaphe Zitouni of Monaco, considered the best centre half in France, and Rachid Mekhloufi, the St Etienne striker.

Both were in a preliminary France squad of 40 for the World Cup.

Instead, they made the strongest of stands for Algerian independence.

In Tunis they met with a senior official of the Algerian army fighting for independence, the Front for National Liberation or FLN, and the FLN team was born.

According to a FLN communique, the stars acted out of patriotism.

Zinedine Zidane with his mother Malika and father Smail
The Zidane family left Algeria for France in the 1980s

"At a time when France is fighting a war without mercy against their people and their fatherland, they refused to give to French sport their qualities, which are universally recognised," the communique read.

"As serious patriots, putting the Independence of their fatherland above everything, our footballers were determined to give a proof of courage, correctness and lack of self-interest to the Algerian youth."

The FLN decided to form a team, and asked for Fifa recognition.

The Algerians' first match was a suitably triumphant 5-1 win over Tunisia, which had already achieved its freedom.

But Fifa, considering Algeria to still be part of France, did not recognise the FLN team, and even banned Morocco¿s Federation when the Atlas Lions played a game against the Algerians.

All the Algerian players were suspended by Fifa, too, meaning they couldn¿t return to their professional careers in France.

However many countries, in particular communist ones from Eastern Europe, did play against the FLN side, which became a formidable publicity tool for the Algerian cause.

The results on the pitch were pretty impressive too.

The side played 83 matches between May 1958 and December 1961, winning 57, drawing 14 and losing only 12, scoring an incredible 349 goals.

In 1962, however, Algeria succeeded in winning its independence from France.

The FLN team, its work done, became the Algerian national team, a side good enough to beat Czechoslovakia and West Germany in the mid 1960s.

Several of the stars of the side, like Mekhloufi, returned to France to play club football there.

But there is no doubt their greatest moment came when they took the political and personal decision to play for their independence.

see also
Zidane visits Algerian homeland
11 Dec 06 |  Africa
Zidane concludes Algeria trip
16 Dec 06 |  African

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