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Algeria and Egypt play political football

Preparations for a World Cup showdown are getting heated, but does the animosity between the two countries run deeper?

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 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.


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Algeria and Egypt play political football | Khaled Diab

This article was published on guardian.co.uk at 17.00 GMT on Saturday 7 November 2009. It was last modified at 10.52 GMT on Sunday 8 November 2009.

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  • ClimateCommunion ClimateCommunion

    7 Nov 2009, 5:19PM

    The Egyptian team may be too preoccupied with the local women of the night to be bothered, as was well reported over the course of the Confed Cup. Perhaps the Algerians should be looking for some hotel room numbers.

  • PhilippaB PhilippaB

    7 Nov 2009, 5:38PM

    So, sometimes a football match is just a football match? Not an epic battle of nations harking back to some war or other? If only. I love footy, but the three things about it that really piss me off are:
    1) the bats-attic commercialisation
    2) "it's not a matter of life or death, it's much more important than that" (cue carmina burana for the pre-match music, tenuous historical references, and lots of portentious voice-overs)
    3) Ronaldo

    But you've encouraged me to watch it, so thank you.

  • Mohab Mohab

    7 Nov 2009, 7:38PM

    Wouldn't it be safer if they didn't allow anyone into the stadium? Every one can watch at home. And if you feel like rioting, well you can destroy your own property, leave bystanders out of this. Last time the Egyptian team's physician lost an eye! The same also goes for every Ahly vs Zamalek match, ridiculous.

  • MoveAnyMountain MoveAnyMountain

    7 Nov 2009, 9:25PM

    In addition, the fact that Algeria is similar to Egypt in many ways ? it too has a secular regimes propped up by the military

    Which always makes me think of Ibn Khaldoun but no doubt that is called Orientalist these days. No matter.

    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.

    Algeria is not a smaller country. It is actually ovcer twice as large as Egypt. It does have a smaller population, in fact about half the size (Egypt has about 75 million whereas Algeria has about 35 million), but Algeria is the second largest country in Africa.

    As for geographically peripheral, that depends on where you stand I expect.

    Otherwise, a good article.

  • Williach Williach

    7 Nov 2009, 10:21PM

    As an algerian i absolutely have no animosity toward my egyptian brothers, its only a football rivalry and its not even the more heated one (at least) from an algerian point of view, compare it to a France - Algeria in SA, that would spark riots in the french banlieues, theres something telling me that the french establishment (via Platini as a head of UEFA) will make sure that doesnt happen...
    Good luck and 1,2,3 vive Algeria !

  • GP01 GP01

    8 Nov 2009, 12:20AM

    blueseal0:

    Real Egyptians facing a Wehramacht squad? Sounds improbable no matter how you slice it.

    Hate to have to break this to you, but DNA tests on the bones found in the Giza Pyramid Buillder's Cemetary; many thanks to the SCA for my toour of the excavations, 10 years ago, show that the make up of the modern population of Egypt is pretty much exactly the same as it was 4,500 years ago in Dynasty IV.

    Khaled:

    Got my fingers crossed for Egypt to make it to SA. With luck I'll be able to catch some of their gamesin Cairo & Luxor; just like I did in 1990. The atmosphere when any match was being televised was something marvellous.

  • winterleaves winterleaves

    8 Nov 2009, 1:03AM

    This is a silly non article
    There are always going to be rivalries but there is no great historical animus between these two countries as there would be if say England play Germany.

    Algeria and its neighnbour Morroco would probbaly have more conflict with the Algeria support for Polariso in western sahara

  • Mady1egp Mady1egp

    8 Nov 2009, 3:05PM

    That is Totally silly and not true. As an egyptian i know that we supported the algerian revolution and i know that when we needed tanks in the 73 war the first to support us were algerians ...it is just a match , nothing more nothing less people will unite and cheer and crticize and that is it, but years later the thing that will remain is the friendship and it is up to people who wrtite articles in papers to make it sound like a war ....it is not,,,,it is a match......so please to all media people keep it as a match.............thanks

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