I suppose every large family has its set of myths. Stories whispered synaptically from cousin to cousin and in-law to in-law. They incubate in chambers of uncertainty, or, even falsity, but that does not diminish their value.
In my father’s family, the legend centred on my grandfather: Mohamed Mezahi. He was a FIFA licensed referee in the early 1960’s, travelling around Africa, officiating domestic and international ties.
I wish I could tell you more about my grandfather, the referee. The truth is that it’s nearly impossible finding information online about his alleged no-nonsense officiating style. One article had him sending off five JSM Tiaret players in a single match. Mohamed Mezahi retired after he was attacked by a group of players in Khenchela following another harsh sending off.
But 1965 was a good year for my grandfather. He was voted one of Algeria’s best referees and handed the opportunity to officiate in the fifth edition of the Africa Cup of Nations. The match he would be assigned was the consolation final the Ivory Coast won over Senegal. On his desk, in his office, there is a grey-scale photo of him interposed between the captains of either side. When I visit my grandparents, I always fish it out from under a litter of family photos and stare.
Several months before the tournament, Mohamed Mezahi was selected as a linesman for a marquee match: Algeria vs. Brazil. Pele, Garrincha, Jairzinho were coming to Algeria! This part of the story is very much fact; it’s what transpired that swims in the depths of mystery.
I can’t recall who first told me, but I’m certain that I heard it from a few different Mezahis: After the final whistle, Pele signed my grandfather’s refereeing card. It was now stashed somewhere in the warped, mahogany wardrobe across his bed.
Last summer, I resolved to terminate the myth of the signed gamecard. I simply decided to ask my grandfather if he had refereed against the selecao, and if he managed to obtain Pele’s autograph.
But growing up in Canada, my grandparents and I have always shared a coltish relationship. There is an element of mutual love, but they were also strangers. I could tell by the way they were kinder to me than to my cousins. I somehow escaped the merciless ear-twisting pincers my grandfather loosed on rowdier cousins.
Our conversations were formalities: varied formulations of ‘good mornings’, ‘good-byes’, and ‘good lucks’. Physical absence had opened an impersonal space that I struggled to close. It did not help that my grandfather was now 80% deaf, so if the courage to ask did come, it did not linger when he asked that I yell in his right ear.
One evening, in May of 2013, I tried consolidating the family legend. My cousin Hacene, my grandfather and I were discussing the FLN team of the late 1950s in the family room. The three of us lounged in different positions around the family room. My grandfather reclined upon his loud, black massage chair that repeatedly punched his frail frame in the back, forcing stutterings when he did try and talk. I was supine along on an elongated ottoman that we sometimes use as a makeshift bed for guests, and Hacene crouched over my book, ‘L’Equipe Glorieuse du FLN’, barking player names to my grandfather.
‘Soukane?’ Shouted Hacene.
‘Ah y-yes, he was from Skik-kik-k-da. Bon joueur!’
‘Yep, from Skikda.’ Hacene confirmed, ‘What about Zitouni, Mustapha?’
‘Ah yes, un grand monsieur. Good p-player, yes. Monaco.’
And the conversation meandered on. Finally, I scraped some courage from the pit of my stomach and asked if it was true that he had refereed Pele. He did not hear me. I tried a little louder but to no avail. Hacene took over:
‘Papi!’ He screamed, startling me. ‘Maher’s asking if you had ever refereed Pele!’
‘Ah, yes. Y-y-y-es.’ He said, shooting a slight nod and smile in my direction before slowly turning his bobbing head back.
As hard as I tried, I couldn’t bring myself to ask him if the gamecard existed. That window of interrogation was open for but a few seconds and, in that time, I flaked. Perhaps some things are better left unexamined, I remember thinking to myself. Or maybe sour grapes…
But even if on the 19th of June 1965, my grandfather did not get Pele to sign his gamecard, it remains a significant day in the young history of Algeria. The North African country was just under three years old and young nations, like a postcolonial Algeria, legitimized their autonomy through various avenues.
In the space of a few years, Che Guevara, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela and other infamous Western undesirables were invited to Algiers on consultation trips. There was a saying that best summarized Algiers in the 60s: ‘If you sought religious pilgrimage, go to Mecca; if you sought a revolutionary pilgrimage, go to Algiers.’
Ahmed Ben Bella, the first de facto President of this new republic, was a revolutionary who fought the French from his outpost in Egypt. Maybe that’s why he was such a Nasserist. Under his thumb, Algeria flowered into a budding socialist nation with pan-African and pan-Arab tendencies. Ben Bella was handsome, charismatic, and he loved his football. He even played for Olympique de Marseille before the revolution began, further evidence of his affinity for the game.
The realm of sport was, therefore, not excluded from the aforementioned legitimization process. West Germany was invited in the Algerian Football Federation’s inaugural year, and Algeria won two-nil in front of a raucous crowd; a foreshadowing of their first ever World Cup victory 19 years later.
But in the footballing world, nothing screams ‘LEGITIMATE!’ like an exhibition match against the Brazilians. Pele and co. were football’s first megastars, and they were deified in Africa. The manner in which Pele took the world by storm as a teenage man of colour saw many Africans identify with his success.
Ahmed Ben Bella invited both Pele and Garrincha for a personal welcome in the run-up. The match would take place in Oran at the Stade Zabana.
On a breezy Thursday night, Brazil won. Comfortably.
Notwithstanding, a celebratory atmosphere reigned over the proud city in honour of organizing an event of such prestige. Once the masses subsided, and the requisite paperwork was submitted, Mohamed Mezahi checked into a hotel. I like to think that, after a shower and tea, he sat on the edge of his bed staring at a signed gamecard. Maybe in the same way I stared at his photo of the 1965 Africa Cup of Nations consolation final.