In a repeat of their acrimonious 1989 qualifiers, the African champions must beat bitter rivals Algeria to reach the World Cup finals.
It’s not often that you see a grown man cry; rarer still to watch a grown man cry at a press conference in front of a baying phalanx of African football journalists. But for Rabah Saadane the pressure just got too much.
Algeria’s national coach, returning to the side he led to the 1986 finals, was talking to the assembled media before June’s World Cup qualifier at home to bitter arch-rivals Egypt. After years of dealing with a demanding public, most people expected him to be inoculated from the sharp end of expectation. But no, the 63-year-old instead broke down in tears. What was stranger was the reaction of the press. No one in the room thought it particularly strange. This was Egypt versus Algeria, after all.
If there was one game that could drive an experienced international coach to tears, this was it.
Nearly six months on and Saadane will be packing his tissues again as Algeria take on Egypt in the return fixture, in Cairo, in a match that is the very definition of do or die, rekindling two decades of resentment and evoking memories of one of the most shameful episodes in recent footballing history.
Egypt have to win by three clear goals to book their place in the finals; Algeria need a draw. And when the smoke bombs clear, and the flares and shattered glass are swept from Cairo International Stadium pitch, one of the biggest shocks of World Cup qualification could become clear with Egypt – Africa’s best team – missing the plane to the continent’s first finals.
The two countries have long fostered an animus that goes beyond football, stretching back to the 1950s when North African countries who were struggling to throw off the yoke of colonial oppression were angered by perceived Egyptian antipathy to their cause. But nothing quite lays bare latent hatreds than the carrot of a World Cup place, as it did in 1989.
Algeria and Egypt were to play two matches to determine who went to Italia 90. The first, in Constantine, ended goalless, meaning that, like today, Egypt had to win in Cairo while Algeria needed just a point. Hossam Hassan’s first-half header settled it for Egypt but seldom has international football seen such a vicious match.
Riots have been a common sight in Egyptian football over the years, especially during the Cairo derby between Al Ahly and Zamalek in Africa’s biggest domestic game. But the sheer vitriol unleashed outside the stadium, on the terraces, on the pitch and even in the tunnel after the game, shocked those who had become accustomed to the violence that had become part of Egyptian football.
One man who will never forget that day is Ayman Younis, the former Zamalek and Egypt midfielder who now commentates for Egyptian state TV. Younis played in the 0-0 stalemate in Algeria, but was injured for the return. Instead he watched the drama unfold from the sidelines.
“It was an incredible atmosphere. The stadium was full five hours before the game,” recalls Younis. “The Algeria team was full of stars and on the pitch it was very crazy; 11 fights between every player. Everybody forgot what the coaches had to say and just fought instead. It was a battle, not a football match. It was like our war against Israel in 1973.”
The aftermath was even worse. Algeria, incensed by defeat, and a perceived Egypt bias from the Tunisian referee, continued the fighting down the tunnel, while a fracas at the post-match reception culminated in the Egypt team doctor losing an eye.
Algerian legend Lakhdar Belloumi was convicted in his absence for causing the injury and an international warrant was issued for his arrest. He remained a virtual prisoner in his own country while always claiming his innocence. He recently pointed the finger at former national team-mate and goalkeeper Kamel Kadri in an interview with Algerian daily Echorouck and the incident was finally resolved in a ceremony before June’s encounter between the teams when Algeria’s president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, personally intervened.
“Yes, it happened and this reaction happens, especially in African countries, because we have a lot of problems knowing how to accept losing,” Younis explains. “Some of
the players couldn’t even get to their dressing room to change because the Algerians were waiting. They were moved out of the stadium [but] we had to wait until they were gone, until 10pm. The match started at 3pm.”