Egypt and Algeria’s World Cup play-off caused the biggest international diplomatic incident sparked by football since the “Soccer War” between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969.

Hosni Mubarak isn’t a man accustomed to defeat. The Egyptian president, after all, has been in charge for more than 30 years, outflanking regional and global rivals with consummate ease. Even Egypt’s electoral process offers him scant chance of coming second: he romped home during the 2005 elections with almost 90 per cent of the vote.

Yet as Mubarak sat in his residence watching the World Cup play-off between Egypt and Algeria – which was being played in Sudan – that unusual sinking feeling would have come across him as Antar Yahia’s thunderbolt sent the Desert Foxes to their first finals since 1986 and the Pharaohs, back-to-back African champions no less, home empty-handed.

As pictures beamed back of wild Algerian celebrations, Egyptian TV was flooded with calls from Egypt fans claiming to have been attacked by knife-wielding Algerians. “Damn the so-called Arab unity, we should no longer talk about it,” an angry Ibrahim Hegazi said on his Nile Sport show. “We should review our situations. We can no longer bear such incidents.”

Mubarak watched the aftermath unfold on TV, his finger hovering over the red button, ready to send Egypt’s special forces to Sudan to protect his citizens. Thankfully, he took his finger off the trigger. “Egypt does not tolerate those who hurt the dignity of its sons,” he later told a televised address to parliament. “We don’t want to be drawn into impulsive reactions. I am agitated too, but I restrain myself.”

The transformation from a charged match with a place at South Africa 2010 at stake to the biggest international diplomatic incident sparked by a football match since the “Soccer War” between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969 was frighteningly quick. All in the space of seven crazy days, riots had broken out from Cairo to Marseille, while ambassadors in Khartoum and Algiers had been recalled and hundreds of fans – not to mention several Algerian players – had been left bloodied and scarred.

Things got so bad Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi had to be called in to broker a peace deal between the two countries.

Five days before the crucial kick-off to the final group game in Cairo, the signs were not good. Thousands of angry Egypt fans had to be cleared away by riot police when it was announced that they had turned up for tickets on the wrong day, despite many having queued since dawn. In a country where corruption is rife – Egypt recently ranked 111th, along with Algeria, in Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perception Index – the finger of suspicion immediately fell on the government and the Egyptian FA.

The rumour went around that tickets were being hoarded and sold on the black market. Sure enough, when the fans arrived back the next day, tickets were changing hands for 10 times their face value.

It is difficult to quantify just how important this match was for many Egyptians. Their pride in the success of the Pharaohs in the African Nations Cup is matched only by the shame of not making it to the World Cup finals since 1990. But the match also had the baggage of history. Egypt had to beat Algeria in Cairo to qualify for South Africa 2010 in almost exactly the same set of circumstances as two decades ago, before what was to become known
as the “death match”.

Egypt won 1-0 in 1989 in a game that was followed by riots and an unsavoury incident in which Algeria players attacked their Egypt counterparts. The Egypt team doctor lost an eye in the fight and the finger of blame was pointed at a former African Player of the Year, Lakhdar Belloumi, who, despite denying the charge, was sentenced to jail in his absence. An Interpol arrest warrant was issued straight after the game but, before the teams met in Algeria in June last year, a deal was struck between the two country’s presidents to finally drop the charges.

Belloumi’s rehabilitation was designed to close a chapter on a sorry incident in world football and also to dampen tensions between the two countries. However, efforts to take the sting out of the match failed. After squeezing past Zambia in October, a 3-0 victory for Egypt would ensure qualification for South Africa; a 2-0 win would mean a play-off. After the Egyptian FA cancelled the league programme to concentrate on the fixture, the resulting media vacuum was filled with war-like imagery, stoking tensions even further.

“The media has to take a lot of the blame for the popular sentiments in Algeria and Egypt,” explained one blogger going by the name of the Moor Next Door, whose analysis of the fallout far outstripped that of the western media. “Many newspapers are owned by people close to the regime who have a direct interest in fomenting a kind of hysteria to bolster the government’s position. That is especially true in Egypt.”

Team bus pelted
As each day passed, disturbances broke out across Cairo. One afternoon saw Algeria fans who had travelled to Egypt gather outside the embassy to protest at their treatment and the fact that they had been given only 2,000 tickets. But the worst incident took place later that day, when the Algeria team bus was pelted with stones and bricks, and several windows were smashed, on the way from the airport.

Three players were injured in the attack – not that you would have guessed from the Egyptian newspapers the next morning. All blamed the Algerians, accusing the team of smashing the windows of their bus in the hope of securing a cancellation.

On the day of the match, Algeria fans had to be escorted under a hail of rocks and insults. “They threw stones at us and gave us the finger,” recalled Attef Al Akhas, an Algeria fan based in Cairo who had travelled under convoy. His friends eagerly showed videos on their mobile phones of their vehicle being attacked minutes earlier. Others displayed cuts and bruises from flying glass. “Not all Egyptian fans are like this,” he added. “It’s the kids really.”

By kick-off the Cairo International Stadium was a sea of Egyptian flags and filled with deafening song. The Algerian national anthem was drowned out, the white head bandages of the injured players embarrassingly conspicuous on the big screens. Within a few minutes Amr Zaki had put Egypt ahead, but it was Emad Moteab’s looping header five minutes into injury time that secured the play-off in Sudan. Algeria had been halted just 30 seconds from the finishing line and the Egypt bench stormed the pitch as the crowd exploded in disbelief.

In happiness, violence followed. The Egyptian government later admitted that 20 Algerians had been injured in the aftermath, while the ripple of discontent spread across the world. On London’s Edgware Road, famous for its Arab cafes, police were called to keep feuding Algeria and Egypt fans apart.

The conditions were ripe for trouble. Unemployment, poverty, corruption and deep unease at Mubarak’s rule have created a frustration at the heart of Egyptian society with few options to release the pressure. But once the authorities had let the genie out of the bottle – and tried to use football to divert attention from its own failings – even the notoriously autocratic security forces couldn’t get it back in.

And the aftermath in Sudan four days later? “The Egyptians…feel humiliated because their team lost, which is symptomatic of Egypt’s wider decline in the Arab world and Africa over the last 20 years or so,” was how The Moor Next Door saw it.

Somehow both Algeria and Egypt managed to deepen the rift of 1989. Now all eyes will be on January’s African Nations Cup in Angola, where they could meet in the knockout stage.

The Egyptian FA has threatened to pull its teams out of international competition and FIFA called an emergency meeting to discuss its punishment for the Algerian team bus attack.

If they meet in Angola, Colonel Gaddafi will no doubt be sitting by the phone, just in case.