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Stoning death of Algerian soccer player seen as part of wider national troubles

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ALGIERS, Algeria - The rocks came raining down after the final whistle of the Algerian soccer match, an increasingly common ritual in stadiums across the country. This time, the violence ended in tragedy: Hit in the head, Albert Ebosse, the league's top goal scorer last season, crumbled to the ground and died in a hospital.

Algerian youths are storming pitches, stoning players and clashing outside stadiums in a wave of hooliganism seen as an outlet for daily frustrations such as joblessness, weak institutions and sheer boredom. Players say a death like that of Ebosse, killed by his own fans, was only a matter of time.

Algeria is one of the main suppliers of natural gas to Europe, but critics say it is failing to translate energy wealth into brighter lives for young people — turning them toward soccer violence.

"Violence in Algeria has become ordinary and banal," said Mahmoud Boudarene, a prominent psychologist. He said "hogra," the word Algerians use for the government's perceived contempt for ordinary citizens, has planted a sickness in Algerian society. People feel that the only way to get anything done is to have connections or threaten the peace, he said.

"It is a system where 'hogra' and social injustice rule," said Boudarene, who comes from Tizi Ouzou, the town where the weekend soccer stoning took place. "Social violence has become the preferred mode of communication between the citizen and the republic — today in our country everything is obtained through a riot."

Youth unemployment in Algeria is at least 25 per cent, if not higher, and more than 60 per cent of the jobs come from the government. The private sector creates few opportunities. Algeria's hydrocarbon industry brings in billions but generates few jobs.

And there's little entertainment to lighten such a bleak picture, with movie theatres, malls and social clubs scarce.

Soccer has stepped in to become the national passion. When Algeria reached the knockout stages of the World Cup in Brazil, the country went delirious with joy.

Many in tightly-controlled Algeria are asking why — when anti-government protests are crushed instantly — wholesale mayhem is permitted inside stadiums.

The body of Ebosse, a 24-year-old striker, is set to be flown back to his native Cameroon on Thursday.

Fellow players express no surprise over the player's death, only pain.

"Every match, we are under a terrible pressure. The case of Albert Ebosse really hurts and we are all exposed to this sort of thing," said Malik Ferhat, captain of Mouloudia Olympique in the city of Bejaia. "The stadiums are still not well-secured. There are fans who enter carrying knives while there is a lax attitude by security."

In March, players had to be rushed to safety when angry fans rushed the field after a game. In 2012, Abdelkader Laifaoui was attacked along with five teammates from the USMA club and stabbed in the back near his kidney, also by angry fans. Despite such episodes, players and coaches say little has changed to improve security.

Hugo Broos, the coach of Ebosse's team, JS Kabylie, has gone back to his native Belgium after watching his star player die and has sworn not to return until real changes are made.

"It's a moment now in Algeria to change some things, because it's unsafe. It's not the first time that such things have happened," he said, warning against the common practice of letting the uproar subside and then continuing on as before.

In May, police reported that there had been 142 violent incidents during the past soccer season, resulting in 600 injured, 400 of them police. The report added that 151 vehicles had been destroyed, and about 315 people had been arrested, including 47 minors.

Further games have been suspended in the country for the next few weeks, and the stadium in Tizi Ouzou has been shuttered.

There have been calls for even harsher measures, such as the five-year ban on English clubs from European competition imposed after the 1985 tragedy in Heysel stadium in Belgium, when 39 fans died fleeing a rush by Liverpool supporters during a match with Italian club Juventus. That tragedy prompted a raft of reforms in Britain.

El Watan, the nation's premier French language newspaper, blamed the 1990s civil war against Islamist radicals — which killed 200,000 people — for sowing the seeds of violence in Algerian culture.

"For years now, violence has found a home in the stadiums and the streets of the country creating a climate of fear and insecurity in our cities," the paper said in an editorial.

___

Paul Schemm reported from Rabat, Morocco. Associated Press Writer John Leicester contributed to this report from Paris.

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