World Soccer
Tuesday November 10th, 2009

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 to be too much.

Algeria's national-team coach, returning to the side he led to the 1986 World Cup, was talking to the assembled media before June's World Cup qualifier at home to archrival 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 vs. 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 takes on Egypt in the return fixture on Saturday, 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 has to win by three goals to book its place at the 2010 World Cup; Algeria needs 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 that 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 like 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 scoreless, 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," recalls Younis. "The stadium was full five hours before the game. 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 postgame 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 teammate 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 10 p.m. The match started at 3 p.m."

This time, the roles have been reversed somewhat. In '89, Algeria was still the dominant force in African football, aiming for its third consecutive finals. Egypt, which hadn't made an appearance since the 1930s, was very much the outsider. But Algeria's civil war, which broke out in 1991 following the annulment of elections won by an Islamist party, curtailed its footballing development.

In Algeria's absence, Egypt evolved and now dominates the continent. The team, under the watchful eye of Hassan Shehata, will be aiming for a hat trick of consecutive African Cup of Nations titles in Angola next January, while Al-Ahly has swept all before it in the African Champions League, winning it four times in the past eight years.

"On paper, [Egypt are] as good as an African national team has been for at least a decade," says Ian Hawkey, author of Feet of the Chameleon, a history of African football. "Add to that Al-Ahly's record in the African Champions League -- and they supply a big portion of the national team -- then they should be lording it across the continent. Mohamed Aboutrika, on his day, is as good a No. 10 as any of his contemporaries from Africa."

Yet for all that power, Egypt traditionally has struggled to qualify for the World Cup -- a hangover, Hawkey says, of not quite considering itself African and instead looking towards the Arab Middle East. This qualification was meant to be different, but the 3-1 defeat by Algeria that followed Saadane's breakdown, and unconvincing wins against Zambia and Rwanda, has again raised the specter of the Pharaohs missing the finals.

"It matters that Egypt goes next summer because the first World Cup in Africa would like to see an African team break the continent's World Cup glass ceiling of only reaching the quarterfinals," says Hawkey. "Egypt has a better chance than most of doing that. But you'd have to say Algeria brings as much to the party, in terms of history and prestige in African football as Egypt does -- even if, on paper, they are a less star-studded team."

Younis, and the vast majority of the Cairo International Stadium baying for an Egyptian victory on Nov. 14 would, of course, disagree -- and with the stakes as big as they can possibly get, both teams will evoke the memory of '89 to right perceived wrongs.

"They are waiting to get revenge," Younis says of Algeria. "But I think it will be incredible to play for Egypt. The atmosphere in the stadium will shake Algeria to the ground. We will make them lose concentration and lose in a way that, this time, they will have to accept the loss."

Both sides, and Cairo's authorities, will pray that this time, whatever the result, it is only tears that are shed.

This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue of World Soccer magazine. To subscribe, click here.

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