If you look past the glamorous cities of Algiers and Constantine in the proud nation of Algeria, you will find Kabylia, a cultural region at the edge of the Mediterranean. It has a proud history dating back to the fourth century of resisting. Kabylia resisted Arab conquests of the Amazigh in the seventh century, rebelled against French colonizers in the 19th century, and protested for self-government in the Kabylia region against the current government. Rebellions are recent, and tensions are tight between the Kabyle people and the Algerian government.
Much like Catalonia in Spain or Flanders in Belgium, Kabylia has always sought independence from its rulers. Algeria opposes it; Kabylia is one of the country’s most profitable regions and has a population of around 10 million people, a third of Algeria. Unlike Catalonia or Flanders, Kabylia voices its displeasure through football. Sometimes, you can find nationalistic tifos flying around in JS Kabylie’s home stadium. Other times, flying objects and rowdy riots can plague the same once-flourishing stadium.
The preferred Kabyle club, JS Kabylie, is one of the most accomplished in Algeria. It won 14 league titles, the majority coming in the club’s heyday in 1970 and 1980. The Canary has five Algerian Cups, two CAF Champions Leagues, and a CAF Confederation Cup. Players that have passed through the 1 November 1954 Stadium, named for Algeria’s independence date, include Moussa Saïb, Farid Ghazi, and more successful Algeria Ligue 1 stars.
Slow Regression Turning Towards Relegation
Despite the proud history of Kabylie, the side has not lifted the Ligue 1 trophy since 2007, and they have not won the Algerian Cup since 2011. In fact, the only trophy they have lifted in the past 12 years was the Algerian League Cup, which stopped after one season. Kabylie has not won against fierce rivals USM Alger in the Algerian Clasico in three years. Algerian media slams them for their poor performances. It’s a tough time to be a Kabylie fan.
“What’s different is mainly when they were having success, they were having a very stable income coming into JS Kabylie,” acclaimed Algerian journalist Maher Mezahi said. At the time, they were not known as JS Kabylie, they were JE Tizi-Ouzou. There was a socialist reform in Algeria where each club was attached to a national enterprise. A national company of hydrocarbons would have a club, and a national company of maritimes would have a club; but for JS Kabylie, it was a national company selling appliances, and they were attached to that club. And what they would do was provide good structure and steady income.”
It’s a far cry from today, where Kabylie’s biggest rivals outspend them. Between the 2017-18 season and the 2022-23 season, Kabylie spent 278,000 euros. That’s good for fourth place, behind USM Alger, Belouizdad, and MC Algiers. But, in a socialist system where each club gets roughly the same amount of funds to work with, it all comes down to skill; on and off the pitch. That’s where coaching comes in, which Kabylie was especially lucky with, Mezahi asserts.
“Those two coaches, [Mahieddine] Khalef and [Stefan] Zywotko, were the main reason why they had that much success. In my opinion, Khalef is a top-five African coach of all time, he’s that good. What he did with the Algerian national team [their sensational 1982 World Cup performance] and JS Kabylie is just amazing. Khalef was more of a football coach, and Zywotko was more of a physical fitness coach.
“He brought the Eastern European, almost Soviet style of physical fitness and sports philosophy to the club, so the players were super fit. And Khalef was just a good tactician, technician, developer of talent, and psychologist as well. I think that’s really what made JS Kabylie themselves in their heyday; great coaching and great budget.”
Things have gotten even worse in the past decade. After a 2014 Algerian Clasico where Kabylie lost 2-1, reigning Algerian Golden Boot winner and Cameroonian striker Albert Ebossé suffered an unclear, vague death while heading back to the locker room. It’s believed he suffered a cranial trauma injury from rubble thrown from the stands, but VICE News and independent investigators think fans beat him to death in the locker room. Regardless, Ebossé died in urgent care, Kabylie could not play in their home stadium for the rest of the season, and they were almost relegated.
After qualifying for the Confederation Cup a season after almost getting relegated, Kabylie again flirted with relegation, finishing 11th, while longtime club president Mohamed Cherif Hannachi resigned. From there, it’s been a series of ups and downs, with chaos inside the boardroom but solid results on the pitch. It’s why the constant bickering and controversy with the board of directors is not new, but Kabylie’s bad form is.
Kabylie faces imminent relegation this season. In 19 Algeria Ligue 1 games, Kabylie has lost 10 of them and drawn another five. Their total of 17 points is good for 15th in the league, only below HB Chelghoum Laid with two points after 22 matches. The CAF Champions League is going well, as they finished second with 10 points and setting up a quarterfinals fixture against Tunisian side ES Tunis on April 21 and April 29. Wins over reigning champions Wydad Casablanca and AS Vita Club have highlighted their campaign as they hunt for continental greatness amid worries at home.
What Went Wrong
“However, when he did resign – or when he passed away, really, it was a power tussle. Because what you have to know is that Kabylie doesn’t just represent the city of Tizi-Ouzou, they represent the whole Kabylie region in Algeria.” That’s BBC journalist and African football expert Maher Mezahi, discussing the powerful impact Hannachi’s death caused in Kabylie. “It’s really like a symbolic club and a powerful club in the sense that if you’re the president, you’re popular with a whole bunch of people.”
Mezahi says Hannachi was a strong personality and was temperamental. And he’s not wrong. He feuded with Ebossé’s father in the press, defending himself and Kabylie against claims that no JSK member attended his funeral and that the club did not help his family. He accused the Algerian Football Federation of being corrupt and told Algerian media they were helping to “poison” the Algerian leagues with bribery. He even accused Brahim Saou, the chairman of US Biskra, of fixing all their matches to achieve promotion.
But, “the one thing no one could take from him was that he loved the club. He was willing to sacrifice and spend on the club, which was what made up for the periods of success, but he would take on rash decisions, which was what also led to ups and downs during his period.”
Hannachi resigned (or died, or was kicked out from the angle you look at it) during one of the club’s deepest valleys, Kabylie was rocked by instability in the board, was dangerously close to bankruptcy, and was very close to the red. The first to succeed Hannachi was Abdelhamid Sadmi in 2017. After he resigned from the job after three or so months, as he “quickly realized he was unable to cope with such a heavy legacy,” a French L’Echo d’Algérie piece asserted in 2018, Lakhdar Madjene succeeded him.
Madjene spent around six months in office before his key allies in office resigned and the club’s shareholders kicked him out for “failing to deliver the funds as promised” in 2019. It led to the era of Cherif Mellal, described by Algerian media as an “unknown.”
“The question that also arises is: how Chérif Mellal, who can be said to have fallen from the sky, since he is an illustrious unknown in the field, did he manage to impose himself as president of the JSK? Did powerful people put him at the head of this club to manipulate it? These are questions that really deserve to be asked,” wrote Tarik Haddouche in Tamurt Francais. Although Mellal promised a lot of funds, which was desperately needed for Kabylie; he brought a lot of legal problems to the side.
“Cherif Mellal, who I think, like Hannachi, is a strong personality, is a Kabylie, and understands the club. He’s the one that took over, but he’s also very rash, also very temperamental, and has that side of his personality as well. And I don’t think the Algerian authorities like him very much. So he got into some legal trouble. He was also a businessman, so while he was there, he was investing in the club, which got them some decent success.
“But since he’s been kicked out for this new guy, Yarichene, who I don’t think the supporters like. I think despite JS Kabylie making the Champions League due to a fortuitous run in the league, I don’t think many of the supporters think they’re on the right track.
After Mellal was kicked out from the club in 2021, Mellal refused to leave, and a lengthy stand-off started. Lawyers and courts had to intervene, ultimately ending up with Yazid Yarichene as head coach. But since Algerian telecom agency Mobilis purchased 75% of JSK shares, Yarichene was ousted by Abdelaziz Zerrouki, a lawyer for national oil company Sonatrach Algeria this March.
“All of this was from the vacuum Hannachi left when he passed away, and that’s not really good for on-field affairs”-Mezahi.
Zerrouki’s hiring has been heralded as the end of a “dark age”, but Kabylie is still in the thick of a relegation battle, and whether it’s too late is hard to see.
On The Pitch
Despite Kabylie’s ups and downs in the boardroom, Kabylie has clinched qualification to the CAF Champions League’s quarter-finals, conceding just five goals in six games while winning big matches against Wydad, AS Vita Club, and Petro Atletico. Rising winger Koucelia Boualia has two assists in four starts, and defender Oussame Guettal leads a great defense stifling Africa’s best.
Under vetted manager Miloud Hamdi, Kabylie defends solidly and springs counter-attacks. They defend in bunches, with 6-8 players marking attackers inside the box. The midfielders track back and join defenders in a tight 4-4-2. One attacker drops deep to link the midfield and defense, and another stays up top as an attacking threat.
It allows them to be a threat without seeing the ball a lot while also retaining the offensive firepower of winger Dadi Mouaki and Boualia. Kabylie has a possession rate of 45.4% throughout the season, ninth of the 16 group-stage teams. They don’t have possession because they cannot get it, but because they are a counter-attacking team. Although they may not score many goals, they do not concede many either.
Despite their overseas success, Kabylie is embroiled in a relegation battle, as they are in the relegation zone and are four points away from safety. In 19 matches, Kabylie has failed to score in 10 of them. Thanks to their low block, their defense may rank highly; they have conceded just 18 goals in their 19 games, but their offense is one of the worst in the league.
Some of it boils down to their inability to replace the goalscoring of Rédha Bensayah, who left the club in the summer for Saudi Arabia’s Al Jabalain. He scored nine goals and had five assists in 31 appearances in the season and was the core of Kabylie’s offense. Mouaki has stepped into the role, and the club signed Redouane Zerdoum from Club Africain. But, neither has filled the boots Bensayah left. Combined with problems elsewhere (inefficiency in the transfer market, fixture congestion, mere luck, and individual slip-ups in tight games) and you have the disastrous Kabylie season.
The side signed Bosnian forward Semir Smajlagic in the winter window. He has been decent for his FK Tuzla City, scoring seven goals in fifteen matches. But, the move seems hurried and half-assed. You can only assume Smajlagic does not speak French, Kabyle, or Arabic, and is unfamiliar with the North African football scene. Smajlagic also clogs up the depth list even more. Zerdoum has played five games this season. With Burkinabe forward Mohamed Lamine Ouattara a lock for the #9 position, that number gets less likely to grow by the day.
This team has a lot of potential. They win when defeat seems likely, and their lock-down defense rivals the Casablanca clubs. But as their defense has impressed all season, their offense is putrid. The winter transfer window is over, and the team is still nearing relegation, which would be the first time in its rich history. The legacy of one of Africa’s best clubs is at stake, and with no resources but the ones in front of him, Hamdi must stay up.
If they do manage to stay up, the rewards will be lucrative.
“Yarichene, who the authorities see as a milquetoast, managed to secure this Mobilis partnership, which I think they get. They’re very close to signing a deal with a national telecom agency in Algeria, Mobilis, which would give them a pretty big budget. If that happens, that would be a game changer in that they would have unlimited money to spend.
“They also have a new stadium coming up. It’s pretty much finished, the Stadium of Tizi-Ouzou, and it’s a 45,000-seater…JS Kabylie, if things go their way in the next 2-3 years, could really be a big African powerhouse. But under Yarichene, things are not really that great.”
With eleven games left in the season, Kabylie needs to squeeze every last point out of their games. The consequence? Embarrassment, financial despair, and the threat of an uncertain future. But Hamdi is up for it.
“Our main focus is to lift JSK from the red (relegation) zone in our championship,” Hamdi told Algiers press. “We’re playing in the Champions League and these Champions League encounters help us domestically and we must not lose sight of that.”
It’s game on as Kabylie look to resist the imminent threat of relegation, and only June will know how their season ends.
By: Deolu Akingbade / @AkingbadeDeolu
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / DZ Foot