Blood feud on the pitch

On 14 November, Egypt and Algeria will come head to head on the football field for a match that will determine which team qualifies for the 2010 World Cup. While the players might still be warming up, their fans are only too eager to prove their loyalties. In the build-up to the upcoming match, their mutual animosity has manifested itself on the streets, in the media, and even, in one surreal case, on President Mubarak’s website. All of which is hardly surprising, considering the history of rivalry between the two teams.

In 1989, Egyptian football legend Hossam Hassan, in what he would later describe as the best moment of his career, scored the winning goal in an Egypt-Algeria match, taking his team to the World Cup and leaving the Algerians a little less than pleased. When their accusations of referee-bias went unnoticed, things got ugly. In a crowded stadium, amidst over 100,000 Egyptian spectators, the visiting Algerian fans began hurling bottles, potted plants, and whatever else they could get their hands on. The ensuing brawl required massive police intervention, which unfortunately wasn’t enough to keep the Egyptian team’s doctor from taking a heavy blow, and losing his sight in one eye.

The two nations have always had a shaky relationship off the pitch, dating back to the late 1950s, when Algerians were fighting for their independence. Forced to keep their team a secret from the French, the rebel National Liberation Front snuck the Algerian team into Tunisia. When the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) found out, the organization declared that  any team to play the Algerians would not be allowed to compete for the World Cup. The Egyptian team played it safe,  despite President Nasser’s ardent advocacy of pan-Arab unity. The Algerians played 91 matches with teams that supported their claim for independence.

Further clashes throughout the 70s and 80s saw both teams shift from sportsmanship to competitiveness, a powder keg that finally exploded during the 1989 game.

Time does not heal all wounds. Twenty years later, bad blood still boils between the Pharaohs and the Desert Foxes. Recently, the amount of online taunts and quarrels between both sides has increased dramatically, with the tone devolving from passionate to offensive, and in some cases, threatening. Algerian fans have accused Egyptian players of cheating and bribery, while Egyptians have promised a beating at the airport for any Algerian fan brave enough to fly over. Eventually, the Egyptian embassy in Algeria intervened, stating, “No need to worry about the match. Egypt is a safe country and all [visitors] will be safe, God willing.”

Not all fans choose to express their loyalty through violence. Some opted for good old-fashioned vandalism. A few weeks ago, the official websites of the Egyptian presidency, as well as those of the Defense and Information Ministries, were hacked by an Algerian known only as “Kader,” who later bragged about it by posting detailed videos on YouTube. The videos have since been removed, and the websites restored. Kader, in a later statement, claimed he respected the Egyptians, but just wanted to teach them a “tough lesson.”

The lesson, does not seem to have had much of an impact. The number of online threats has continued to rise and the match date is close enough now to be discussed on television. Unfortunately, the methods of discussion have been little more than thinly veiled threats and taunts. It  is a bold attitude, considering the Algerian team is in a much better position than Egyptians: due to FIFA’s point-accumulation system, Egypt has to win by at least three points to qualify for the World Cup. The Algerians, on the other hand, only have to win the match.

As a result, the Egyptian fans have taken it upon themselves to do what they can to tilt the odds in their favor. “We should find out which hotel the Algerian [players] are staying at,” says one determined youth, “And we should have a party under their windows, so they can’t sleep. A light show and car horns and fireworks!”

Many of Egypt’s younger football fans seem to share this mentality, focusing on deeds that might be obnoxious, but not necessarily violent. However, for a significant percentage of the Egyptian fan base, car horns and fireworks are a little lacking.

“The Algerians are going to get a beating,” promises a grim-looking young man. “It doesn’t matter who wins the game or by how much. They’re going to get a beating. A physical one. On the street.” His friends nod in agreement, some morbidly, others visibly excited at the prospect of violence. “They’ve been printing obscene pictures [in their press] for weeks. They had one where their coach was dressed up as a groom, and our coach as his bride and the headline was ‘14 November: Penetration Night,’” the young man cries, almost heartbroken. “Penetration Night!”  
Beyond childish pranks and bloodthirsty threats, everyone involved with the upcoming game knows how important it is. It’s obvious some are struggling to deal with the pressure, as evidenced by Algerian coach Rabah Saadane’s public meltdown at a press conference last May. The media responded strongly, and the event became another chapter in the well-documented drama that has been unfolding for decades.

Years of stoking the flames of competition has led to the present-day situation where sportsmanship has taken a backseat to one-upmanship. The result is that this major athletic event now feels like merely an opening act for an all-out brawl, a fans only Ultimate Fighting Championship. So far, pleas and promises from both governments done little to calm ravenous fans. With every passing day, the tension grows. Whether or not the 14 November will bring a triumph of sportsmanship over bitter rivalry is yet to be seen.

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