Algeria, Egypt rivalry crosses the line
There is a thin grey line between the competitive nature of sport and societal anarchy and when it is crossed, as we have recently seen, it does make the entire World Cup circus seem a little absurd.
That people regularly die in, and around, the game of soccer, and in particular during the four-yearl battle for World Cup qualification, is an indictment on our supposedly modern society.
Here in Africa, death has become almost guaranteed with every passing qualification campaign, played on a two-year cycle to determine teams to go on and play in the World Cup and African Nations Cup finals.
Poor match organisation, heavy-handed policing, stampedes, ticket scalping and general bedlam guarantee at least one match per campaign is bloodied by the deaths of spectators, usually innocents caught up in a maelstrom around them.
This year it was Abidjan where ticket less fans made their way into stadium, bribing gate keepers, and then pushing against those already inside and eventually crushing a wall down onto others. There were more than 20 deaths in March before the World Cup qualifier between Cote d'Ivoire and Malawi.
Tenions between Algeria and Egypt boil over
The past two weeks there have been as many injuries, but thankfully no fatalities, in north Africa where the African qualifiers for the 2010 finals climaxed in an absurdly overheated contest.
Algeria and Egypt would, you would reckon, have enough enemies in common to make them almost fraternal brothers but these two Arabic-speaking, Moslem-majority north African countries have got up each other skin over the years.
They were paired in a decisive qualifying match in Cairo on Nov. 14. Hosts Egypt, the reigning African champions, needed to win by three goals to qualify; Algeria could afford to lose by one and still make it to next June's tournament in South Africa.
The game ended 2-0 in Egypt's favour with the second goal coming five minutes into stoppage time. It could not have been scripted more dramatically were it given the full Hollywood makeover.
The result meant both teams finsihed tied at the top of the group standings and had to go onto a neutral playoff game on Nov. 18. FIFA had already set in motion the possibility of a playoff and their supposition proved correct.
The Cairo game had been preceded by a vicious, but not unprecedented, attack on the bus carrying the Algerian players, with at least of three suffering facial cuts from the shards of glass as the windows broke under a hail of stones. Egypt bizarrely denied the incident and said the Algerians had made it all up, even in the face of credible and independent evidence to the contrary.
Then, amid the mayhem of the heart-pounding tension of the Cairo match, there were clashes between rival fans, which produced several injuries, although the exact tally escalates wildly depending on which sides you listen to.
But blood was spilled in a crude clash of nationalism that in the case of the Algerians and Egyptians reaches almost schizophrenic levels. Back in Algeria the locals vented their frustration by looting and attacking anything Egyptian. Targets in Algiers included the offices of a mobile company that operated in Algeria but is Egyptian owned, and the offices of the Egyptian state airline.
On Nov. 18, the two nations played off to decide a World Cup place, a prize as big as any the players and coaches involved would ever have a chance of attaining.
The game in Sudan was barely three minutes old before the onfield fighting started. The build-up had seen the country commit some 15.000 security personnel to the job of protecting the two teams and the fans from each other, almost one for every three spectators.
It was another edge-of-the-seat encounter, full of incident and opportunity and won by Algeria, who had the support of most neutrals. And predictably it was followed by more fan clashes, this time the Egyptians make wild claims of Algerian-inspired genocide. Flags have been burned, demonstrations held and the recriminations have now extended to the usually tranquil arena of diplomacy.
Outbreak of violence
Egypt have even gone as far as recalling their ambassador from Algeria, a strongly pointed diplomatic signal of unhappiness. All over a soccer game?
In one way it is another example of just how powerful a commodity the World Cup has become. FIFA officials might be publicly condemning all the violence but privately it pleasingly affirms their showpiece event has no equal.
But it remains a concern these supposedly sporting contest are still a life-and-death affairs, as if we were back in the Roman days taking our titillation from the contest between gladiator and lion.
About the Author
Mark Gleeson lives in Cape Town and is a world-renowned authority on African soccer, having spent the last 25 years writing about the sport. He was honoured for his services to the game on the continent with a Merit Award from the Confederation of African Football (CAF) in 2008. He has won numerous journalism awards in his native South Africa, where he currently also works for satellite TV station SuperSport as a match commentator. He also writes extensively on both South African and African soccer.