The Game that Changed the World Cup – Algeria

Football, known more popularly as Soccer in the United States, has a long history in Algeria. The nation’s former long-time colonial masters, the French, introduced the so-called “beautiful game” to Algeria nearly a century ago. Football was quickly embraced as a game most anyone could play, no matter what their level of income or social status. With the goal of national independence achieved in 1962, Algeria set its sights on another goal: bringing their hardscrabble style of football to the world stage. The Fédération Algérienne de Football was established and an infrastructure created to nurture promising players and provide support to the sport of football in Algeria as a whole.

The name of Algeria’s national football team is “Les Fennecs”, which in English means “The Desert Foxes”, and the team colors alternate between green and white.

Following many years of frustration in World Cup qualifying rounds, Les Fennecs finally earned a World Cup berth in 1982 when the event was held in nearby Spain. The crafty Desert Foxes wasted no time making an impression on football fans worldwide as they shocked the powerful West German team with a 2-1 victory. Rabah Madjer, held by many to be Algeria’s greatest-ever football player, scored the first goal while teammate Lakhdar Belloumi sealed the historic win. The Desert Foxes were shut out 2-0 by Austria in their second game, but boosted by a pair of goals from Salah Assad, defeated Chile 3-2 in their third. The stage was now set for what would be one of the World Cup’s most noteworthy games – for all the wrong reasons.

On June 25th, 1982, the final game in Group 2 between West Germany and Austria was to be played. Algeria had played its last game in the round the day before. Although Chile had already been eliminated, the placement of the three other teams in Group 2 depended on the result of this pivotal final game.

Algeria’s Desert Foxes could only sit by while their destiny was decided for them, hoping for a West German victory by more than 2 goals that would move Algeria onward by virtue of having a better goal differential ratio than Austria. It was not to be… the West German team quickly scored a goal and then, as football fans at the stadium and in their homes howled their displeasure, both teams seemed to sit back and kick the ball around for the remainder of the game, with nobody making a serious effort to score! The game ended with a 1-0 West German win, and both West Germany and Austria moved on while the proud Desert Foxes of Algeria were relegated to the also-rans.

The outcry that ensued was heard at the upper reaches of the FIFA hierarchy, which pledged that never again would matches be so grossly manipulated. At the 1986 World Cup, a new qualification system was unveiled that ensured that the final pair of games in each group were played on the same day, with the same starting times.

The system was so successful that it has become a fixture of all FIFA Men’s World Cup games. Although the events of 1982 were a crushing blow to Algeria’s soccer fans, they can take some comfort in knowing that The Desert Foxes were at the center of one of FIFA Football’s most important and lasting reforms.