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Africa Cup of Nations: Meet the Algerian fan in Dakar rooting for victory

Mohammed is one of at least 200 Algerians living in Senegal - but the small community is rooting for the motherland in the football competition
Medical student Mohammed Djebeli has lived in Senegal for nine years (MEE/Maya Hautefeuille)
By Amandla Thomas-Johnson in Dakar, Senegal

A teenage Mohammed Djebeli dreamt of following in his father’s footsteps and becoming a professional footballer in Algeria, perhaps one day representing his country.

While his father played for Azemmour as a central defender, and Djebeli himself was set to play for the Esperance Sportive team in his hometown Mostaganem, his life has taken a somewhat different turn. Djebeli, now 26, is a final year student at a medical school in Dakar, Senegal. 

Tonight, Djebeli and the small handful of Algerians living in Senegal will feel even smaller as they gather to watch the final of the Africa Cup of Nations hosted by Egypt, which will pit Algeria against Senegal.

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Their support for the Algerian Desert Foxes will be an exception in a footballing-mad West African nation that is home to more than 15 million people.

Djebeli is optimistic about Algeria’s chance however, his team having already beaten Senegal in the group stage of this year’s competition.

“We qualified as the first of the group in front of Senegal, who were the favourites since the beginning. We won the first match against them and after that, we started dreaming.

"We were fearful before that match but since we won it we are optimistic,” he tells Middle East Eye.

Djebeli said he watched that group stage match alone in a large cafe in downtown Dakar, where he now sits with a red baseball cap sipping an espresso, as a flatscreen TV plays repeat games from earlier rounds of the competition. 

Friday's game comes during a watershed moment in Algerian history, as people continue to pour out on to the streets to demand peaceful change, months after bringing an end to President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika’s almost 20-year rule.

Algerian medical student Mohammed Dhebli predicts Algeria to win 2-0 (MEE/Maya Hautefeuille)
Algerian medical student Mohammed Djebeli predicts Algeria to win 2-1 (MEE/Maya Hautefeuille)

Djebeli thinks that the ongoing revolution in Algeria could push Algeria to victory, and that a win, in turn, could then help the revolution.

“The aims of the revolution and the prospect of winning the cup will just motivate the players,” he said. “The national team are well aware of the [political] situation.

“The revolution will motivate the players, push them forward. The flag is the people, the change!” he added.

Regardless of the outcome of the final, Djebeli believes “the revolution will continue, the country will regain its rights.

"But the win will be a plus!”

Algerians in Dakar

The Senegalese flag, with its green, yellow and red tricolor and five-pointed green star, has been gradually taking over Dakar - Senegal’s seaside capital - in recent weeks, as the team has inched closer and closer to the final. 

Vendors have appeared on the streets peddling flags, horns, scarves and even wigs in the country's colours. Children have been heard shouting the name of Liverpool’s star striker, Senegal's very own Sadio Mane, as they play football in the dusty streets.

Thousands will gather at Dakar’s central plaza, the Place de l'Obelisque, climbing trees or craning their necks to watch the game on giant screens as women sell grilled chicken and people beat on drums. 

Djebeli, however, will be watching the game at the Algerian embassy. While there is a visible community from the Maghreb in the country - mainly from Morocco - Algerians are few and far between, and many have returned home for the summer holiday.

The embassy doesn’t have an exact census of how many Algerians are in Senegal, but a senior diplomat at the embassy told MEE that it was over 200. Djebeli says that there are six at his medical school, which is based at Senegal’s prestigious Cheikh Anta Diop University. 

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Senegalese striker Santy Ngom, meanwhile, is also of Algerian descent.

Djebeli and his Algerian friends are optimistic. “When we look at the Algerian team’s course through the competition, I think that it was perfect, very perfect,” he said.

“I can’t fault them physically or tactically. We’ve conceded just two goals and scored twelve.”

He credited Algeria coach Djamel Belmadi with rebuilding the team. “The players are listening to him , it is positive.”

Many Senegalese, meanwhile, are hoping that manager Aliou Cisse, who is a close friend of Belmadi and grew up in the same Parisian neighbourhood, can engineer a victory despite the absence of star defender Kalidou Koulibaly, who is suspended.

Djebeli said he would be happy even if Algeria didn’t win, but when asked for his prediction he says without hesitation: "Algeria will win by 2-1 and Belali Youssef and Mahrez will score.”

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