Algeria triumphed in the World Cup play-off amid heightened tensions in the Sudanese capital
It can’t be easy to focus on an extremely unusual World Cup play-off when you are worrying about security. After Algeria players were injured by stone-throwing Egypt fans in Cairo, 32 supporters from both sides were hurt in post-game clashes and Egyptian-owned businesses were attacked in Algiers in retaliation, safety was on everyone’s mind in Sudan.
The Egypt team complained their bus was attacked shortly after its arrival in Khartoum, though thankfully no one was hurt. The Algerians holed up in their luxury hotel, a Libyan-built modern affair known locally as “Gaddafi’s Egg” and became quite testy whenever they came across Egyptian journalists.
Meanwhile the fans poured into Khartoum. Egypt sent planes and some intrepid fans even travelled overland through the desert. This presumably was why the Egyptians had nominated Sudan as their neutral venue should a play-off be needed. Algeria went for its fellow former French north African colony, Tunisia, but Sudan was drawn out of a hat.
The Algerians chartered at least 48 planes for their fans. The usually rather staid streets of Khartoum echoed to the sounds of car horns as cavalcades of supporters celebrated in the build-up to the game. The Sudanese were clearly supporting Algeria, thanks to a dose of anti-Egyptian feeling, and Egyptian support for Chad in a Chad-Sudan game held in Cairo in September 2008.
The numbers of fans and the heated atmosphere between the two countries were of grave concern to the Sudanese authorities. Things got even more tense when the president of the Algerian football federation accused his Egyptian counterpart of responsibility for the incidents in Cairo and refused to shake his hand.
Sudan announced a comprehensive set of security measures for the game, to be played a few miles outside Khartoum’s city centre at Omurdman. The Al Merreikh stadium’s 42,000 capacity would be reduced to 35,000, with the Algeria fans at one end getting 9,000 tickets, the same number going to Egypt supporters, and 17,000 left to the Sudanese in the middle. Around 15,000 policemen were to be on duty and hospitals were on full alert, too.
The Sudanese tickets had largely been sold on to the visiting fans, but the rival sets were kept well apart. VIPs and journalists had to force their way into an over-packed stadium and some ticketless Sudanese fans were dispersed using tear gas.
Compared to the pre-match fears, the game passed with relatively little incident on the pitch. The same couldn’t be said about the atmosphere. Algerians lit newspapers, sending flames spluttering into the night sky; Egyptians waved their black, white and red flags. The noise was deafening.
Algeria had the better of a testy first half, though left-back Nadir Belhadj probably should have been sent off. He already had a yellow card when he kicked Ahmed Al Muhamadi, but the referee chose to warn both men.
Algeria, with Karim Ziani and Mourad Meghni pulling the strings in midfield, broke the deadlock when the Egyptian defence failed to deal with Ziani’s ball into the area and Antar Yahia volleyed home off the bar.
Egypt coach Hassan Shehata rang the changes at half-time and his side had the better of the second period. But when they did breach a rearguard ably marshalled by Madjid Bougherra, goalkeeper Faouzi Chaouchi – playing because first choice Lounes Gaouaoui was suspended – kept them at bay.
At the final whistle Algeria’s players sank to the turf or ran towards their fans, who let off flares. Some players sat on the crossbar leading the cheers.
Afterwards, coach Rabah Saadane spoke of the great joy the qualification for a first World Cup finals since 1986 had brought to the country and hoped it would encourage the authorities to find better solutions to the numerous problems faced by young Algerians.
Many of those ran riot after the game. At least six Egyptian buses were pelted with stones and a trail of broken glass led up Africa Road, near Khartoum airport. Egypt’s information minister said 21 fans had been slightly injured, though his nation’s press blew it into a massacre of epic proportions.
The Sudanese police struggled to deal with the worst excesses of Algerians undoubtedly motivated by revenge for the incidents in Egypt.
But it is also true violence has become a sad fact of life in Algerian football, a reflection of a troubled society after the brutal civil war in the 1990s.