Egypt v Algeria: An eye for a… World Cup berth

You know there is a problem when a match is played in Sudan to avoid violence. But that’s what will happen Wednesday when Egypt face Algeria in a playoff for the last African berth to the first World Cup played on African soil. These two neighboring North African nations have a deep, and at times violent, rivalry on and off the soccer field. The last time these two countries squared off with a World Cup Finals place on the line, it ended with an unlikely Egyptian victory and melee that cost the team doctor an eye. Everyone is hoping that the riots that preceded Saturday’s group stage finale in Cairo can be avoided and the focus can return to the pitch, because it should be a cracking game.

While most Americans associate soccer violence with mindless hooligans, it’s more often based in international and domestic politics than simple anti-social behavior. Soccer is a genuinely global game and unique among sports in that it often mixes athletic competition and international relations. The El Salvador-Honduras Soccer War (a real war between the two nations fought after violence during a World Cup qualifying match in 1969) gets the most attention, but Egypt and Algeria have had their share of intense soccer-political rivalry.

When Algeria was still a French colony, there was no official Algerian national soccer team even though many of the best players in the French league were Algerians or of Algerian descent. When four Algerians were selected for the French national team squad in the build up to the 1958 World Cup, the Front de Liberation Nationale of Algeria (FLN) hatched a plan to smuggle them and other Algerian players out of France and start a rebel Algerian FLN team.

At the urging of France, FIFA threatened to bar from sanctioned international competition any country that played the FLN team. While it played 91 games between 1957 and 1962, it never met Egypt, who at the time were the biggest soccer power on the continent, winning the African Cup in both 1957 and 1959. Fifty years on, the animosity still lingers.

After independence, Algeria grew into the strongest soccer nation in Africa. By the late 1980s, it had appeared the World Cup Finals in both 1982 and 86 and was preparing to host the African Cup in 1990. In qualifying for the 1990 World Cup, the Algerians needed only a point from its final group game against Egypt in Cairo to claim its third straight berth in the Finals. The bitterness of the FLN team years contributed to an incredibly nasty atmosphere prior to the match. Egyptian midfielder Ayman Younis said of the game, “The stadium was full five hours before the game. The Algerian 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.”

Egypt won the game 1-0 and secured its first place in the Finals since 1934, but the violence didn’t end at the final whistle. The teams and staff battled all the way down the tunnel and into the dressing room, and the Egyptian team doctor lost an eye in the fight. Egypt went as far as convicting Lakhdar Belloumi, one of Algeria’s greatest players, in absentia and issuing an international arrest warrant that wasn’t rescinded until this past June.

Algeria did go on to win the African Cup in 1990, but that was the high water mark for Algerian soccer. The civil war that followed the annulment of national elections won by an Islamist party in 1991 has crippled the program. In Algeria’s absence, Egypt have once again emerged as the class of the continent, winning the African Cup in 2006 and 2008.

Twenty years on from the last Cario confrontation, the teams were in a nearly identical situation, except the roles were reversed: Algeria was trying to prevent the continent’s best team from playing in the world’s best soccer tournament. The results off the pitch were eerily similar to 1989. The Algerian team bus was attacked by rioters, and according to the New York Times, “so many huge rocks were hurled at the team bus on its way from the airport that several windows were smashed and three Algerian players arrived at their hotel drenched in blood.”

Egypt won 2-0 to set up a scenario that only fate could have orchestrated. After the round robin group stage, Egypt and Algeria were level on: total points; head-to-head points; head-to-head goal difference; head-to-head goals scored; total goal difference; and, total goals scored. Seriously, exactly the same on all five of those measurements. That’s why we are headed to this one-game playoff in Sudan on Wednesday.

The combustible mix of continental pride, decades-old sporting rivalry, nationalism, violent memories, and the usual passion and intensity during a playoff game with a World Cup berth on the line will make this Egypt v Algeria encounter one to remember. Let’s hope that the teams trade a goal for a goal rather than an eye for an eye.

 

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