By James M. Dorsey
One of the Algerian national soccer team’s doctors in the 1980s has supported allegations that the squad may have been secretly doped in the 1980s to enhance performance at two World Cups in a bid to distract attention from mounting domestic discontent with the government.
Dr. Rachid Hanifi, speaking to Algeria’s El Watan newspaper, said that the Algerian squad’s then Soviet trainer Gennadi Rogov had introduced a doctor, a fellow Soviet national, who refused to share what his approach to preparing the team for the 1982 and 1986 World Cups was or grant access to anyone to the player’s medical files.
“I think they were doing evaluation tests that they did not want to divulge. I sent a report to the director general of the national centre for sports medicine and the (sport) ministry I was told that Rogov should be allowed to work with his doctor. So I resigned,” Dr. Hanifi said.
Members of the team who played for Algeria in the two World Cups at a time of a series of protests in the country charge that eight of the team’s members have handicapped children that have been born since the tournaments. They are demanding an investigation. Algeria’s soccer federation has yet to comment.
Autocrats in the Middle East and North Africa often see soccer because of its popularity and ability to evoke deep-seated emotion as a means of enhancing their tarnished images and distracting attention from discontent with unpopular policies. The 1980s was a time that various Arab states were witnessing protests.
While Syria brutally suppressed an Islamist uprising in 1982 in the city of Hama killing at least 10,000 people, members of Algeria’s national soccer team believe that they were secretly given medicaments in the hope that their performance would take the wind out of sails of demonstrators in various Algerian cities.
Whether doped or not, the Algerian squad delivered a performance in 1982 at a time that protests erupted in the city of Oran and spread in 1985 to Algiers and Setif in 1986 that many Algerians still cherish.
In front of 25,000 fans at the El Molinon stadium in Gijon, Algeria's Desert Warriors turned soccer on its head, defeating favourite West Germany 2-1. Duke University’s Laurent Dubois quotes an Algerian commentator as wondering at the time whether German children were asking their fathers: “Dad, where’s Algeria?”
"We have serious doubts over the effects of medication that we were given during training camps. We just want the truth,” said former defender Mohamed Chaib, a father of three girls born with muscular dystrophy, in an interview with Agence France Press.
One of Mr. Chaib’s daughter died in 2005 at age 18. Medical tests found no abnormalities either with him or his wife.
“We were all lab rats,” an unidentified former athlete told El Watan. He said that a former coach had reported large-scale doping already in the 1970s. He said n investigation was launched into the allegation but that the coach had been penalised.
Dr. Hanifi said that the link between drugs that were administered to the players and their children’s handicaps was not immediately evident “but it’s possible.”
Ali Fergani, who captained the team in 1982, dismissed the players’ suspicions. "The number of players who are parents of disabled children is minimal compared to the total number of players selected," he said, insisting that all medical staff had been Algerian nationals and that he recalled being given only Vitamin C.
The calls for an investigation come as anti-government protests that erupted in Algeria early this year as part of the wave of uprisings sweeping the Middle East and North Africa have fizzled out on the streets of Algerians towns and cities but are alive and kicking in the country’s soccer stadiums where football fans regularly take on President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the military and the Islamists.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.