By Khaled Diab
Preparations for a World Cup showdown are getting heated, but does the animosity between Algeria and Egypt run deeper?
12 November 2009
Football may be known as the beautiful game but at the international level it often resembles some kind of Great Game in which countries compete for regional and global ascendancy. Overpaid knights in shining bling – backed up by a supporting army of fanatical volunteers – march into battle to defend the honour and prestige of the nation.
Football has a tendency to bring out both the best and worst in people, from friendly rivalry and parties in the stands, to the pettiest forms of jingoism and tribalism. As someone with only a passing interest in the sport, who finds there are goals in life beyond the back of the net, I sometimes find the depth of passions football provokes both baffling and bewildering.
In the African theatre, things are heating up, and the scramble to join World Cup hosts South Africa in one of the continent's five additional places has sparked a cold war between two of its top footballing nations and archest rivals: Egypt and Algeria. A clash between the Pharaohs and the Desert Foxes for a place among the Titans of football sounds like the stuff of legends and the buzz surrounding the make-or-break qualifier on 14 November has an almost mythical ring to it, especially since the two nations fought almost the exact same battle 20 years ago, in 1989.
With so much at stake, advance armies of fans, journalists, hackers and other patriots have been mobilised to instil fear in the hearts of the enemy. Even that great patriotic Egyptian institution, Coca-Cola, has launched a major propaganda campaign, called “Remember 1989”, to get Egyptians squarely behind the troops.
Both sides have been exchanging allegations of unfair play, and the head of Air Algérie has even accused Egypt of restricting the movement of Algerian fans that have already arrived in the country.
For their part, international observers fear that the clash could spill over beyond the battlefield and claim some civilian casualties. The Egyptian and Algerian foreign ministers have been on the phone to each other to discuss the emerging crisis.
Peace activists on both sides are out in force. In a bid to calm tensions, the Egyptian daily al-Masry al-Youm has launched a controversial campaign called “A Rose for every Algerian”. Earlier this week, a group of Egyptian and Algerian journalists met in Algeria to discuss ways of bridging the widening chasm and, in a gesture of love, solidarity and soppiness, they exchanged red roses.
These pre-match skirmishes raise the question of whether Algerian-Egyptian tensions revolve solely around football or whether the beautiful game is being used as a proxy – a political football, if you like – for deeper animosities.
“Algerians and Egyptians have never warmed to each other, and they seem to like expressing their feelings through football,” speculates Brian Oliver on the Guardian's sports blog. “Egyptians are seen as snooty and aloof, and there was bad blood between the two countries in the late 1950s, when so many African countries – but not Egypt – were fighting for independence.”
Although Egypt may have been one of the first African countries to gain its independence and had a mild colonial experience compared to Algeria, this was actually not a source for tension between Egypt and Algeria – quite the contrary.
Egypt's struggle for independence and the support given by Gamal Abdel Nasser's regime to the Algerian revolutionaries during the country's long and bloody war of independence against France – which led France to join forces with Britain and Israel to attack Egypt during the 1956 Suez crisis – is greatly appreciated in Algeria. In fact, Nasser is revered to this day by many Algerians.
If there have been political tensions between the two countries, these emerged later, when Egypt made a separate peace with Israel and was left out in the cold by the entire Arab world, including Algeria – but these resentments have faded.
In addition, the fact that Algeria is similar to Egypt in many ways – it too has a secular regimes propped up by the military – but is smaller and geographically more peripheral means that the country sometimes aspires to but has not managed to play the same kind of cultural and political role Egypt does on the Middle Eastern stage. And Egyptians can be quite arrogant about this, which could explain why some Algerians see them as “snooty and aloof”. For their part, Egyptians stereotype Algerians as aggressive and violent – which might date back to the fateful 1989 encounter in which the Algerian players reacted violently to being knocked out.
But, in the balance of things, I think the rivalry is mostly about football and how it impacts on the pride of two troubled nations. Egypt, which has qualified only twice for the World Cup (in 1934 and 1990), wants to overcome its ‘curse of the Pharaohs' and reflect its unrivalled record in Africa on the world stage. And with what is widely seen as its best team ever, the country should have qualified without trouble, and not be struggling to keep its head above water as it now is.
Meanwhile, Algeria, which was Africa's most impressive side in the 1980s, wants to regain its former glory after so many years in the wilderness.
This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 7 November 2009. Read the related discussion.