By far the best match over the week-end took place in Cairo between Egypt and Algeria. The match, played in an extremely tense atmosphere, at a frenetic pace and at a remarkable technical level, culminated dramatically. Egypt’s World Cup quest is still alive after a historical, fifth minute of injury time goal that will be played and replayed in the hearts and minds of the people of both countries for a long time to come. Impressive Algeria will rue the missed opportunities.
Algeria played with great character, fought bravely amidst extremely hostile conditions, controlled much of the game and on at least three occasions should have scored its World Cup clinching goal. But the Algerians made a tactical error, retreating to defend in the last 15 minutes of the game instead of continuing to bring the game to the Egyptians and keeping the play near midfield, far from its own goal. In line with Algeria’s step back, Egypt threw everything forward with the greatest sense of urgency, and, inevitably, found a way in. The goal sent the stadium into utter delirium, turning desperation into exultation, an eruption of euphoria, while the few hundred Algerian supporters, the Algerian delegation and players grabbed their heads in disbelief, completely dejected.
With a long history of bad blood between the countries dating back from the 1980s when Egypt convicted an Algerian player in absentia for a post-match incident, the hostilities surrounding this match spilled before and after the match. The Algerian players’ bus was attacked and smashed up by stone throwing Egyptian youths, with three players more than superficially injured and a team manager seriously hurt. Even after the match, the four buses taking the depressed Algerian supporters away from the stadium came under attack by stone throwers, apparently with nearby riot police electing not to intervene. In Algeria, Egyptian workers and shops were in turn attacked by angry youths; all streets leading to the Egyptian embassy were sealed off. Even in Marseille, with a large Algerian community, the Egyptian consulate was heavily guarded. FIFA took note, but surprisingly has done nothing about it thus far.
Everything will be decided on Wednesday in Sudan. It is unclear how Khartoum was selected as the venue, though at first impression this favors Egypt due to proximity. Tens of thousands of Egyptians are expected to take the trip. More importantly, it will be interesting to see how the teams recover from the physical and mental depletion of Saturday’s match. Algeria must look at the video and realize that it was technically superior to Egypt in Cairo, but everything will come down to energy level and mental preparation. Egypt brings great momentum into the match after rescuing a life line. It is hard to imagine that the teams will be able to replicate the excitement of their match in Cairo, and ultimately it is a shame that one of them will not make it.