Hostilities between old foes Egypt and Algeria look set to resume on Thursday in the highly anticipated African Cup of Nations semi-finals. The match-up comes less than three months after their hotly contested World Cup 2010 playoff game. Algeria just edged it on that occasion. On current form, sporting a perfect record of four wins in four games the Pharaoh’s look unstoppable. Meanwhile Algeria only managed one goal in their group matches and were two minutes from elimination to the Ivory Coast in their quarter-final. However, with such colourful history and animosity between the two, the semi-final looks set to be a classic case of the form-book going out of the window.
The fierce rivalry between the North African heavyweights is rooted in their first World Cup qualification showdown that took place 21 years ago. It was a decisive match in Cairo for a place in Italia ’90. Egypt were 1-0 victors, but the Algerians were left incensed by what they perceived to be biased refereeing – a stadium-wide riot broke out at the final whistle culminating in an Algerian player partially blinding Egypt’s doctor with a thrown bottle. As Egyptian player Aymar Younis aptly noted: ‘’It was a battle, not a football match.’’ Just a year later Egypt snubbed their rivals by sending a youth team to the Algerian hosted 1990 African Cup of Nations.
Tensions gradually subsided in the intervening years leading up to the World Cup 2010 qualifying campaign, where Algeria and Egypt were paired together in the final round of qualifying. Indeed on the eve of Algeria’s home match to the Pharaoh’s there was a diplomatic agreement to subdue lingering animosities – the Interpol police warrant for the bottle throwing Algerian was dropped and Egypt’s doctor was given substantial compensation for his injury. Algeria won the game 3 -1 and despite a heavy military presence, the game passed off relatively calmly. What made the return fixture significantly more charged with tension was the huge stakes at hand – it was the last group game for both and Egypt required a 3-0 victory to pip the Algerians to the qualifying post. Everything was on the line and this stirred up memories of 1989 – rekindling emotions of injustice and stimulating desires for revenge.
Fears of violence were realised when Algeria’s arriving team coach was stoned – inflicting serious cuts to three players, two of them played in head bandages for the actual match. Team doctor Michel Gaillaud said the players were mentally unfit and the match should not have gone ahead. The Hornet’s nest was disturbed further when the Egyptian media made the audacious claim that the Algerians had staged the attack themselves in a desperate bid to have the game moved to neutral territory. Video footage suggested otherwise. FIFA stepped in demanding assurances that security would be significantly increased for the Algerians. On the pitch, Egypt were 2-0 victors – the all-important 95th minute goal enough to force a playoff decider between the two. A series of violent attacks took place in the following days. At one point an Egyptian plane was sent to ‘’rescue’’ it’s Algerian-based citizens.
The playoff game in late November was played on neutral territory in Sudan. The Algerian’s won 1-0 granting them passage to the World Cup in South Africa. Following the match, violence ensued between both sets of fans. A significant proportion of injuries were inflicted upon the Egyptians. This led to an unprecedented outcry – the Egyptians threatened to withdraw from all future international competition and the Egyptian ambassador was recalled from Algeria. A series of intense qualification match-ups spanning two decades had created a monster; the North-African derby had become something more than a footballing contest – it was a clash that spilled over into political and cultural dispute.
It’s clear to see that no added spice will be needed for tomorrow’s semi-final – both sides feel they have points to prove to one another. Algerian midfielder (also of Blackpool) Hameur Bouazza said yesterday: “It is great playing Egypt again as it offers us a chance to prove we beat them fairly and not through luck. We won through hard work and because we have a lot of talented players.’’ Similarly, a burning passion to set the record straight lies within the Egyptian team. Winger Sayed Moawad stated: ‘’The next game will be on the pitch away from any troubles, but we will teach the Algerians a lesson in football. We want to prove that we failed to qualify for the World Cup only because of certain circumstances.’’ FIFA and the Angolan hosts will hope that the only sparks that fly, happen on the pitch. Apprehension of post-match fracas aside, this should be a grudge match for neutrals to savor.
Algeria, along with Angola, have had their route to the knock-out stages at this year’s championships blemished by allegations of match-fixing. Going into their last group-game, both nations required a draw to gain a quarter-final spot. Mali, who were eliminated on goal-difference, have complained that the 0-0 draw shared by Algeria and Angola was a cynically orchestrated result. In mid-week the Mali Football Association launched an official protest to CAF (Confederation of African Football) about the alleged breach of fair-play rulings. Algeria Coach Rabah Saadane strongly denied Mali’s accusations: “It was a match in which neither of the two teams took any unnecessary risks. We didn’t make an arrangement with Angola. We would never have done something like that.” The Serbian also argued that Algeria would be the last nation to ever consider match-fixing to ensure success: ‘’Algeria were the victim of an arrangement between Austria and Germany in 1982, when they arranged a result that eliminated us. I can guarantee that Algeria and Angola did not do anything like that.’’
Mali’s talismanic player and former Premiership star Frederic Kanoute has retired from International football. The Sevilla striker scored 23 goals in 38 appearances since opting to play for the Eagles over France in 2004. Kanoute was deeply upset by Mali’s poor showing at the championships and is thought to have lost patience with infighting between players: “It really hurts me. After we were knocked out in 2008 we really wanted to do well here. That’s life. I’m sorry I couldn’t succeed in helping my team go further at the Nations Cup, which now marks my retirement.’’ Despite an impressive 3-1 victory over Malawi in their final group game, Mali came up short after a defensive collapse to Angola and a 1-0 loss against Algeria.