It’s a rivalry that goes back decades. Some say that it’s political, whilst others point at matches from the past that have inflamed sensibilities in a world that seems to consider the art of taking offence to be the next step in the evolutionary chain. Both sides of the divide sees the other as being the absolute opposite without ever seeming to take the similarities between their two nations into account. Football is truly a global game in the twenty-first century, and Algeria versus Egypt has become one of the international games Battle Royales.
Its easy to make glib assumptions about volatile politics or what-have-you when trying to look for a root cause to the rivalry between Algeria and Egypt, but the truth is fairly mundane. These are two North African nations that have under-achieved on the world stage for the last twenty years. Algeria haven’t qualified for the World Cup finals since 1986, Egypt since 1990. When one pauses to consider some of the nations that have represented Africa over the last two decades, it starts to become apparent what a barren era this has been for the Norternmost part of the continent.
The key match in stoking the rivalry was the 1989 World Cup qualifier between the two sides played in Cairo. Egypt won to book a trip to Italy for the 1990 World Cup in Italy the following year amid chaotic scenes, crowd violence on and off the pitch and rumours of biased refereeing. After the match, Lakhdar Belloumi of Algeria glassed the Egyptian team doctor, was convicted in absentia by an Egyptian court. Under the threat of a knock on the door from Interpol, Belloumi – rated as possibly Algeria’s greatest player, in no small part on account of his goal against West Germany in 1982 – didn’t leave Algeria against until earlier this year, when the warrant was finally rescinded.
The qualifying group for this tie has been played out as if scripted by a soap opera writer. Egypt started slowly as it started to look as if the African champions might not make it to the finals. However, they have built up a head of steam which reached boiling point last weekend with a final match between the Egypt and Algeria in Cairo. If Egypt won 2-0 the two sides would finish on identical records. Amr Zaki gave Egypt the lead inside two minutes but it took until five minutes into stoppage time for Emad Moteab to add a second goal and level up the entire group, necessating tonight’s play-off match in Omdurman, which sits opposite Khartoum on the River Nile in Sudan.
To say that the match is being tightly policed would be something of an understatement. Fifteen thousand police are on duty at the Al Merreikh stadium. The press in Algeria and Egypt have stood accused of stoking tensions still further with their coverage of the match in Cairo. “The Egyptian satellite stations achieved the goal set by their security forces, to terrorise Algerians and incite Egyptians against Algeria”, said the Algerian newspaper Al-Fadjr, while the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram stated that, “Relations between [Egypt and Algeria] are stronger and deeper than a mere football match. These are relations based on blood, religion, culture and civilisation”. Other news outlets in the Middle East, meanwhile, have questioned the wisdom of the hype surrounding the match, with some noting that this match is bringing out the worst in all concerned.
It takes fifty-five seconds for the first yellow card of the night to be awarded (to Algeria’s Beljahd for a mistimed tackle on Moawad), and this just about sets the tone for the first half. Two minutes later comes the first bout of mass pushing and much of the rest of the first half is punctuated with niggly fouls, little kicks, theatrical reactions to said kicks and surprisingly – some might say mendaciously – horrified looks of disbelief. When the football match does show its face, Egypt look much the stronger side, all pass and move and keeping the ball, whereas Algeria have a somewhat more agricultural approach to it, often seeming happy enough to punt the ball as far down the pitch as possible. Egypt create chances, too. Mohammed Aboutrika shoots narrowly wide and the Algerian goalkeeper Faouzi Chaouchi saves outstandingly from Ahmed El Muhammadi.
A couple of minutes from half-time, though, the sucker punch. Egypt have been looking more and more like scoring, but Algeria break effectively, Karim Ziani passes the ball to Antar Yahia on the right hand side of the penalty area, and Yahia smacks the ball in off the underside of the crossbar, past Essam El Hadary. It’s a shot that is too much for the Egyptian goalkeeper. It’s also a goal that they scant deserve on the basis of the balance of play in the first half, but they have taken their chance and hang onto it until half-time with relative comfort. The underdogs lead at the break, which feels more like a half-time truce than an interval.
The first ten minutes or so of the second half encapsulate what we have seen so far. Egypt are nice possession with no bite. Algeria, whose second half tactic seems to be to have at least seven or eight players behind the ball at all times, seem to cope with it without too much difficulty. Meanwhile, they break at pace and, when Hassan Yeba gets behind the Egyptian defence and sends over a cross from the right, Karim Ziani should score but heads straight at El Hadary. At the other end, Metea finds himself a little space but his shot is well saved by Chaouchi – Metea apparently then mistakes the goalkeepers head for the ball and tries to kick it clean off his shoulders and into the empty net. After this, however, Egypt start to run out of ideas. El Saqua has a shot from close range somehow blocked by Chaouchi but in the last ten minutes Egypt completely run out of ideas and fizzle out completely. The full-time whistle blows, and the Algerians hardly had to break into a sweat for the last ten minutes.
Congratulations, then, to Algeria, who qualify for the World Cup finals for the first time in twenty-four years and finally get the chance to have a go at setting straight the injustice of that tournament, when West Germany and Austria shamefully colluded in their final match to ensure that they both went through while Algeria went out. Egypt can’t say that they didn’t have their chances to qualify and their failure to do so may say something about the self-doubt at the heart of their football culture which was also evident when Al-Ahly took their place in the FIFA World Club Cup twice in the least three years. They will remain the under-achievers of African football. Algeria, meanwhile, will now go on to join the party next summer. Egypt will have to make do with defending their African Cup of Nations in January.