Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 November 2009
Issue No. 972
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mother of all matches

The time has come to walk the talk. Alaa Abdel-Ghani previews a football game like no other

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BATTLE BEFORE THE BATTLE: Hoards of hopefuls descended upon Zamalek club, one of the ticket outlets for the 14 November World Cup qualifier between Egypt and Algeria, when tickets went on sale Wednesday. More than 72,000 spectators, including 2,000 Algerians, are expected to pay between LE15 to LE1,500 for a seat in a full house Cairo Stadium. The extremely high demand could drive the third class ticket from LE15 to around LE250 in the black market. For those who can't make it, the game will be aired on public Egyptian TV channels at 7.30pm

Shortly before his death, Michael Jackson said that "this is it". The great singer was referring to what was going to be his last concert series, though he may just as well have been talking about the Egypt-Algeria soccer showdown. The game that will send one of these North African heavies to next year's World Cup has gone down to the wire. It is the be-all and end-all of all games. Do or die, a fight to the finish, now or never, life and death -- use all the expressions of finality you would like and you would be correct. It is a head-on collision of the worst kind from which just one will emerge from the smoky ruins. Indeed, on the night of 14 November, it will be it.

To be sure, it won't necessarily "be it". The fine print at the bottom says a deciding game on 18 November will be played in neutral Sudan should Egypt beat Algeria by a two-goal margin. But nobody on either side of the aisle is willing to even consider the possibility. All want it to end on Saturday in mammoth Cairo Stadium so that a beeline is made straight for South Africa. The very thought that there might be a playoff is, well, perish the thought.

A World Cup appearance is a glorious opportunity not to be missed, though one crucial point has already been missed. No matter how high the stakes and they are exceedingly high, the game is supposed to be just that -- a game. There will be a winner and a loser, one who will go to the World Cup and one who won't. That's sports and that's life. But try telling this piece of sportsmanship advice to the Egyptian and Algerian public, fans or otherwise. 14 November has taken on such overblown, fanatical proportions it can no longer be put in the proper context of simply a game. It has gone much beyond football. While an accurate assessment of Algerian aspirations is difficult to make, here in Egypt it appears that the honour of all Egyptians is at stake. Thanks to hotheads and an impetuous press and TV which have been whipping up emotions to frenetic levels, it is not only inconceivable that Egypt loses. It would be a disgrace. The saner say a loss would be a shame; the less rational call it shameful.

Because many are having difficulty understanding the difference, FIFA, football's world governing body, has been forced to warn the parties concerned. "We have been informed directly and via the media of some tensions leading up to this decisive day," FIFA, which qualifies the match as a high security risk, said in a letter sent to the football associations of both countries. "In this regard, we feel it is timely to remind you that FIFA is clearly monitoring all the activities around this match."

The activities FIFA talks of include any form of hooliganism evinced by any of the 70,000 Egyptian and 2,000 Algerian fans in the stadium, and that includes the throwing of any objects, plastic bottles or things harder, onto the field.

Egyptian and Algerian officials have also called for calm. Egypt's Foreign Ministry added that sport should not affect relations. "There is a joint Egyptian and Algerian desire for calm ahead of the crucial match," spokesman Hossam Zaki said. Last week, Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci and his Egyptian counterpart Ahmed Abul-Gheit made special mention of the media which have traded venomous vitriol for over a month, calling on media outlets in both countries to maintain "sportsmanship and a brotherly spirit" ahead of the game.

All this, of course, is the fault of Algeria and Egypt's historical bitter rivalry. Many of their 25 face-to-face matchups have been blood feuds, none worse than the Armageddon of 1989. Almost to the day 20 years ago, Egypt beat -- who else? -- Algeria to go to the 1990 World Cup. After the game, so furious were the losers, that the eye of an Egyptian doctor was gouged out when an Algerian player stuck a broken bottle firmly in the socket.

Any wonder then, that in Egypt and Algeria, these are anxious moments? If Algeria win, draw or even lose by a single goal it will qualify for the 2010 World Cup. Egypt needs to win by three goals in order to reach the tournament. The tension is palpable, overly so. For the prize is a pass to the World Cup, the world's most coveted championship for the world's most popular sport, a tournament Egypt and Algeria have graced only twice each.

The pot is sweetened further: the 2010 edition will be Africa's first World Cup. Since Egypt is the pioneer of African football and current African champion, we certainly do not want to miss the boat to an African World Cup, with such a distinguished past and so glorious a present. We would love to be there, as we would love to be in Cairo Stadium on D-Day. However, tickets were expected to be sold out within hours after going on sale on Wednesday, even though the priceless passes were going for as high as a prohibitive LE1,500.

We must first, however, earn our ticket. Out of Egypt's 717 internationals, the impending end game has got to be placed in the top 10 in terms of difficulty and importance. The same must hold true for Algeria.

But the World Cup beckons. And Egypt, like Algeria, wouldn't miss this World Cup for the world.

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