A matter of life and death? (Egypt vs Algeria is much more important than that)

Tonight the two sides meet again for the same prize after a sequence of
results that would make an atheist question the notion of free will. At
stake is a place in next year’s World Cup, no small amount of pride and the
terms of a million arguments that will rage in North Africa long after the
final whistle is blown.

The footballing giants of the Maghreb both have points to prove. Algeria have
not taken part in the finals since 1986 and Egypt, for all their dominance
of Africa’s club competitions, haven’t been there since 1990. There is a
mutual antipathy ? stoked, some believe, by a perceived failure on the part
of Egypt to assist Algeria’s efforts to throw off French colonial rule.

But the beautiful game has been cultivated in both countries, where the
authoritarian regimes haven’t been slow to notice that football can let off
popular steam that might otherwise blow in their direction. “The elite
[in Egypt] never lost faith in football’s ability to soothe the masses,”
David Goldblatt wrote in his world football bible The Ball is Round.

With so much pumped-up pride and frustration placed on the outcome of a
kick-around, matches may stop revolutions but they also start riots.

After a disappointing qualification campaign from group favourites Egypt,
relative outsiders Algeria found themselves within touching distance of a
place in South Africa. All they needed to do was avoid losing by two goals
in Cairo last Saturday. A draw would have seen Algeria go through. A defeat
by a single goal likewise. A win by three goals would have elevated Egypt
above Algeria in their qualifying group and sent the “Pharaohs”
south. In fact, the only score that could have persuaded anyone to stage a
play-off between two of football’s most antagonistic rivals was 2-0 to
Egypt.

Thanks to a goal in the fifth minute of stoppage time from Egypt’s Emad
Moteab, that’s exactly what happened. That left the two rivals level on
points and goal difference in Group C. And so tonight, in Khartoum’s twin
city of Omdurman, they face each other again in a match that almost nobody
wanted, fighting for the final African place in the 2010 championships.

Football’s world governing body Fifa is hoping the Sudanese authorities can do
a better policing job than Egypt managed at the weekend.

Despite weeks of warnings, an online war of words among supporters and public
appeals for calm from cabinet ministers and the insistence of the Egyptian
foreign ministry that all sides “had a desire for calm ahead of the
crucial match”, the Algerian players had barely made it out of the
airport before they were attacked.

A stone-throwing mob surrounded the team bus and the latest gory chapter was
opened. “We were bombarded with stones,” Michel Gaillaud, the
Desert Foxes’ French doctor, recalled. The first rock was thrown hard enough
to go in one side of the bus and out the other, he added. “People were
screaming. We were lying on the floor. Someone started shouting, ‘There’s
blood! There’s blood!'”

It’s a shout that’s usually heard at some point in encounters between the two
countries. Anyone listening to the pre-match comments from Egypt’s captain
Ahmed Hassan would have known what to expect: “Algeria once said their
trip to Egypt will be joyful and full of entertainment, but I assure them it
won’t.”

Sympathy for the stoned was in short supply in Cairo where commentators queued
up to dispute the Algerians’ claimed injuries, saying the attack had been
faked in an effort to get the game cancelled.

While almost anywhere else in the world the game would have been called off,
here Fifa looked the other way and it went ahead with two of Algeria’s team
playing with head bandages ? a situation the coach wasted little time in
blaming for the 2-0 defeat.

The backlash in Algiers was swift. Thousands of Algeria fans burned down
Egyptian telecom giant Orascom’s compound and stole or destroyed equipment
worth $5m. EgyptAir’s country headquarters were ransacked twice and looters
chanted slogans at the firemen who turned up to put out the blaze. Algeria’s
ambassador was later summoned to the foreign ministry in Cairo for stern
words. If this response seems overblown, anyone present at the 1989 match
could have told authorities what to expect. Then, as now, the two teams had
to play two matches to decide who would go to Italia ’90. The first ended
goalless, moving to a decider in Cairo where Egypt needed to win. This they
did thanks to a first-half header from Hossam Hassan but the football wasn’t
really the point.

Ayman Younis, an Egyptian midfielder who would have played that day but for
injury and is now a television commentator, remembers: “It was an
incredible atmosphere. The stadium was full five hours before the game. The
Algeria team was full of stars and, on the pitch, it was very crazy; 11
fights between every player. Everybody forgot what the coaches had to say
and just fought instead. It was a battle, not a football match. It was like
our war against Israel in 1973.”

Then the fighting got worse. Brawling in the tunnel was followed by a pitched
battle at the press conference that had to be broken up by heavy police
intervention. By the time the two sides were parted, the Egyptian team
doctor had lost an eye.

One of Africa’s most admired players, Algeria’s Lakhdar Belloumi ? who scored
the winning goal against West Germany at the 1982 World Cup ? was blamed. He
was convicted in absentia by an Egyptian court and a warrant issued for his
arrest by Interpol. He has remained a virtual prisoner at his home until a
personal appeal by Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika saw the warrant
lifted this year.

The leading characters from that fateful match are once again to the fore.
Many of the players are now coaching or commentating on tonight’s game.
Algeria are managed by Rabah Saadane, who played in the 1989 decider. When
asked about the pressure at a press conference in June he broke down in
tears.

As for the peacemakers in Khartoum, hopes of a neutral venue have vanished in
the last 48 hours. Egypt is perceived as the neighbourhood’s sporting bully
and around 15,000 riot police have been deployed. Last night, Algerian
defender Madjid Bougherra summed up the mood, saying they were “ready
for war”.

Scotland seems to be everyone’s first port of call when it comes to
underlining the importance of a match and while Algeria’s supporters didn’t
quote Bill Shankly they took inspiration from the movie Braveheart in a
popular YouTube clip, getting William Wallace to call on all Algerians to
turn out for the Sudan decider.

Thousands of fans like Adel, decked out in pointed hat, shirt and trousers in
Algeria’s colours, answered the call: “I am married with two children,”
he told the AFP in Khartoum. “I left my children, my wife, my home. I
left everything and I came here.”

Great sporting rivalries

*India v Pakistan

With TV audiences often approaching one billion, the clashes between these two
great cricketing nations can take on an epic quality. The stakes are only
heightened when the two countries’ relationship is soured by politics.
Effigies of hated players have been burned in the streets; on some
occasions, Test matches have even been played in neutral countries to dampen
hostilities. Pakistan boast the better head-to-head record in tests, with 12
wins to India’s nine.

*El Salvador v Honduras

In 1969 these Central American nations faced off against each other for a
place at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. Honduras won the first game 1-0,
while El Salvador triumphed in the second game 3-0. A month later, on 14
July, the two countries commenced a four-day war that resulted in around
2000 deaths. Of course the causes lay in deep socio-economic tensions. But
tensions were stoked up so much by the needle fixtures that the conflict
became known as the “The Football War”.

*USA v USSR

Another rivalry with its roots in politics, this titanic battle took a further
twist during the 1972 Munich Olympics when chaos reigned in the basketball
final. Timing errors led to premature celebrations from the Americans before
late scores swung the match in favour of the Soviets who ultimately
prevailed. Despite vehement protests and official tribunals, the result
stood, while the silver medals went unclaimed by the USA. Americans may
prefer to look back on their amateur ice hockey team’s astonishing success
in the 1980 Winter Olympics, when en route to a gold medal they took on the
feted Soviet side as heavy underdogs and won, in a stunning game that came
to be known as the “Miracle on Ice”.

*Japan v South Korea

They may have joined forces to host the World Cup in 2002, but relations
between these two were a lot more tense following the Second World War. When
they were drawn against each other for a set of World Cup qualifiers in
1954, South Korean president Syngman Rhee refused to allow the Japanese to
set foot in his country. Both games were therefore played in Tokyo, and Rhee
warned his countrymen: “Be prepared to throw yourselves into the ocean
if you lose.”

*Russia v Georgia

When the two countries’ athletes flew to Beijing for the 2008 Olympic Games,
they may not have anticipated any unusual rivalry. Then Georgia launched an
assault on South Ossetia, and a brutal war began. In China, the stakes were
rather lower ? but some competitors couldn’t forget the war at home. In the
women’s beach volleyball, the Georgian underdogs triumphed. Cristine
Santanna ? originally Brazilian ? declared: “I was inspired
by what is going on back in Georgia and it made me more determined to win.”
Her Russian opponents saw things differently. “Georgia were stupid to
start a war with Russia,” snapped a furious Alexandra Shiryaeva. “We
are big and they are small.”

Matt Fortune and Rahul Odedra

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