A massive cloud of red smoke settled over Tunis on the nights of 3 and 4 October, as Club Africain celebrated its 100th birthday. The cloud gradually expanded, reaching Paris, Montreal, San Francisco and all the other places that Club Africain’s considerable fan base call home.
Even though Tunisia was experiencing an increase in Covid-19 cases in October, which forced the country to impose strict physical distancing rules and a curfew, Club Africain’s supporters filled the streets to celebrate this milestone. They lit fireworks for several nights in a seemingly never-ending party.
“If the government had taken steps to prevent the fans from celebrating, there would have surely been riots across the country,” says Alaa Hammoudi, a sports journalist based in Tunis.
The advance of the coronavirus pandemic wasn’t the only obstacle that could have ruined the party of the 13-time Tunisian champions. In late 2019, the club was on the verge of bankruptcy after Fifa deducted six points, forbade them from signing new players and sanctioned them financially because of unpaid transfers to various clubs and unpaid salaries to former players.
The debt, contracted between 2012 and 2017 under Slim Riahi’s presidency, put Club Africain in a dangerous position. The Tunisian Football Federation (FTF) had to intervene. The FTF set up a crisis management committee to save the club from relegation and heavier sanctions. FTF also opened a new bank account on 4 October 2019, on the club’s 99th birthday, to allow supporters to donate towards clearing debt, which sat at around $6 million. Fans launched several campaigns, in which Club Africain was involved, accompanied by the hashtag #Lakhta (#AllInOne) after Fifa said the club should have repaid half its debt by 6 November that year.
Many supporters’ contributions to the club left them with peanuts to scrape through the month. Some sold their cars or gave their entire monthly wage. One contributed the money he’d reserved for his cancer treatment and a blind supporter decided to forgo the medicine for which he’d been saving.
The day before the debt repayment deadline, supporters raised an incredible and unprecedented $450 000 in 24 hours. Long lines of fans waiting to make their donations formed in front of the National Agricultural Bank in Kheireddine Pacha Avenue and footage of the supporters’ chants inside the bank went viral.
‘If we don’t do it, who’s gonna do it?’
Payments came from abroad, including from Nasreddine Ghedamsi, 32, a Tunisian freelance handyman living in San Francisco in the United States. “If we don’t do it, who’s gonna do it? Everybody contributes and every penny is worth a lot,” he said.
When asked if clearing the debt should really have been up to the fans, Ghedamsi said: “It is what it is, it doesn’t matter. If you feel the pride for the club, you have to pay back. When your club needs you, you have to show up. I live in the US and I’m an immigrant here. It wasn’t easy [to contribute], but Club Africain is part of the family and you don’t want to see a family member struggling like that.
“We couldn’t see the club fail, and we saw incredible things. There has been a joke among Club Africain’s fans in my hometown Ezzahra [south of Tunis] saying that some guys that never worked before started working only to contribute [to save the club]. This speaks volumes of how people were involved.”
“The team would have had to play hundreds of games to be able to raise that much money,” adds Hammoudi, who also played his part to save the club.
Although Club Africain paid off their debt on 3 January this year, some players from the current squad are still demanding their unpaid salaries. In addition, there are other pending financial issues to solve to avoid further economic sanctions and a new suspension on the transfer market. Nevertheless, the financial status of the club is slowly improving, especially after signing a four-year sponsorship agreement with Qatar Airways on 16 August.
This agreement gives hope to the fans and Tunisian football, which almost lost one of the country’s biggest clubs. Club Africain represents the identity of Tunisians under the French protectorate at the beginning of the previous century. It was formed in 1919 from the ashes of the dissolved Stade Africain but had to wait more than a year for recognition from the French authorities as the club didn’t abide by some of the rules imposed on teams that weren’t in the hands of the colonisers.
Club Africain couldn’t include “Islamic” in their name. They had to remove the half-moon and star symbols of Tunisian identity from their shirts. To get around this, they stylised the initials of their name.
The main stumbling block, though, was that Club Africain had to appoint a French president, as the rules of the time dictated. They withstood the pressure and on 4 October 1920 became the first Tunisian football club managed entirely by Tunisians, following a constitutive meeting in a cafe in Bab Jadid, the historical neighbourhood within the old city of Tunis that is the centerpiece of the club’s supporters.
The founders were mostly intellectuals, among them club vice-president Jamaleddine Bousnina, the first Arabic-speaking sports journalist and the first Tunisian member on the board of the Tunisian Football League (LTF). They knew that to claim and develop the Tunisian national identity, and foster young activists with an anti-colonialist mindset – their ultimate goals – they needed to add cultural activities to their sports association.
Club Africain also formed baseball and athletics teams, laying the foundations for the multisport club they are today. In 1934, some of Club Africain’s founders founded Rachidia, an artistic and cultural association that holds music and poetry contests, concerts and gala events. These were good tools for them to collect money, to keep the football club alive.
“Since the beginning, Club Africain have reflected the reality and the needs of the native society. The sporting and cultural fight carried on by Club Africain when Tunisia was under the French protectorate helped to root a fighting mentality – rejecting colonialism and encountering injustices – a factor which was crucial to build the civil culture that contributed to gain the independence afterwards,” said Hammoudi of the club’s early decades.
Beyond their battle for independence, Club Africain have also been able to turn their football team into one of the most successful in the country, winning 29 national trophies to date. Hammoudi and Ghedamsi’s passion for the club surfaced in the 1990s, a decade in which Club Africain became the first Tunisian club to win the CAF Champions League (then called the African Cup of Champions Clubs), in 1991. Despite their triumphs, Ghedamsi said his love has never been related to results.
“I feel the same pride regardless of the results,” he said. Club Africain have always been an expression of diverse social classes, “so being a part of them makes you feel you are in a family. You have to defend its values and be honest with them. It’s not an exchange, you give to the club and whatever you get, it’s fine.”
Ghedamsi and his brother are still carried by the cultural spirit that guided Club Africain’s founders in the 1920s. They have made a couple of songs for Tunis-based Lefriqi Musical Group’s new album. “Every clubiste [Club Africain fan] is an artist in his relationship with the club. You just find a way to express your love. People make up good songs without being artists. Some people paint, others come up with ideas for tifos and many other forms of art to show how much they love their club. For me and my brother, it was these songs,” he says.
The struggles and hardships Club Africain has had to endure are best summed up by the famous statement of the late Abdelaziz Lasram, a former Club Africain player and president, and Tunisia’s economic minister: “Since its birth, Club Africain have always evolved in the face of adversity, without ever betraying its identity or its memory.”