Is it only a game?
It should be, but the World Cup qualifier between Egypt and Algeria is turning into a mini-war, reports Alaa Abdel-Ghani
Everybody knows Egyptians built the Pyramids. But apparently Algerians conquered them.
An Algerian website picturing an Algerian flag planted firmly atop the Giza colossus and a photo of what looks like Algeria's star midfielder Karim Ziani superimposed along one entire side of the famed edifice is but one in a long list of aggressive tit-for-tat exchanges in the media of North African rivals Egypt and Algeria. In the run-up to the humongous 14 November clash for the right to go to the 2010 World Cup, what should be a football game has fast become akin to a war game.
Surely, the 18th century Prussian military historian Carl von Clausewitz did not have football in mind when he coined his most famous motto: "war is a continuation of politics by other means." He had no idea things would change so dramatically. But so it has with all the teasing, revival of bitter memories, recrimination and blind prejudice that is dominating media coverage more than a month before next month's showdown.
Recent examples of antagonism abound. No sooner had Egypt beat Zambia to revive their hopes of making it to the World Cup than the battle began.
Electronic warfare broke out after allegations that Egyptian hackers launched a cyber attack on the website of the Algerian daily Echorouk, defacing the newspaper.
Algerian hackers immediately launched a counter-attack by defacing the website of the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, causing some disruption.
Egyptian hackers came right back by defacing the website of the Algerian national TV and An- Nahar national newspaper. In turn, Algerian hackers also reportedly attacked the websites of Egypt's Ministry of Information.
On TV, too, on an Al-Jazeera phone-in, Egyptian and Algerian viewers called each other names, forcing the presenter to cut them all off.
The players have had a go as well. Egypt's skipper Ahmed Hassan threw his hat into the ring when stating that Cairo Stadium will turn into the "stadium of horror" for the visiting Algerians who in turn are seemingly convinced that they have already booked a place in South Africa's finals, and have repeatedly gloated over it.
Egypt are lagging behind in the lengthy race for the single World Cup ticket, with Algeria superior in points and goal difference. The six-time African champions need to win the do-or-die match by a three-goal margin in order to guarantee a World Cup berth.
Bragging about their qualification chances and describing their next month's trip to Egypt as "joyful and entertaining" was not just out of their desire to tease their rivals. The Algerians ignited a heated verbal joust with an obvious intention of distracting their opponents and shaking their confidence before the crucial qualifying game.
Why the hatred? Algerians and Egyptians have never warmed to each other. Their games have repeatedly been marred by brawls, none more violent than that of 20 years ago, when Egypt managed to claim a World Cup berth from -- who else? -- the Algerians.
Brian Oliver, writing recently in The Guardian, was in Cairo Stadium at that time in 1989, and described the scene:
"There was so much trouble around the game. The build-up to the match was hostile, as the two countries already had a healthy dislike of each other.
"The ground was nearly full already; more than 100,000 packed in with more than four hours to go.
"Algeria felt the referee had been biased after their 1-0 defeat, and when the final whistle went the officials were harassed and surrounded by the entire Algerian contingent, players, coaches, officials, then turned to the VIP area and heaved plants, dirt and earthenware pots into the seats. Worse was to follow. At a post-match reception, one of the continent's greatest football heroes, Lakhdar Belloumi, bottled the Egyptian team doctor, who was blinded in one eye."
The incident, though it furthered soured the relationship between the countries, cannot compare to the "Football War", also known as the 100-hour War fought by El-Salvador and Honduras in 1969 during a qualifying game for the 1970 World Cup that left 4,000 casualties on both sides.
In the opposition Egyptian daily Al-Wafd, and under the headline "Don't beat the war drums", Editor-in-Chief Said Abdel-Khaleq hoped there would be no repeat of that day between Egypt and Algeria 20 years ago. "The game [on 14 November] is already huge. No need to make it worse."
In his front-page column, Abdel-Khaleq wrote that both countries were at present pointedly reminding the other of their helping hands -- Algeria's troop contribution in the 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel, and Egypt's heavy political, financial and manpower support during the Algerian Revolution.
In the independent Egyptian daily Al-Dostour, Editor-in-Chief Ibrahim Eissa said football is proof of neither love nor hate. "Tension is in the football supporters, not the peoples of the two countries," Eissa wrote in a full-page story.
Eissa hastened to rectify the belief that Algerians do not like Egyptians or that Algerians have forgotten or would rather not acknowledge Egypt's support during Algeria's war of independence from France.
Eissa said football was naively described as a sport that unifies nations. Not necessarily so, and "if the guiding principle that governs nations was football results, the globe would be engulfed by brawls, divisions and wars."
Following a meeting of the heads of football federations of the two countries this past week, the battle of words has seemingly subsided. Echorouk and the Egyptian daily Al-Shorouk launched a campaign rejecting violence ahead of 14 November. But as the big day approaches, the exchanges could jump-start. The only convincing replies by either side should be on the pitch. (see pp.8 & 12)
Additional reporting by Ahmed Morsy