- guardian.co.uk, Monday 16 November 2009 15.00 GMT
The run-up to the game had the feel of a military preparation. It then turned into a country-wide street party. And in both cases, it tasted like victory. That this all took place before the game was even played seemed not to concern Egypt's fans.
Technically uninspired as it may have been, the Egypt-Algeria World Cup qualifier game, which ended 2-0 for Egypt, will be long remembered – mainly for everything that happened off the pitch. The extent of hostilities, for one thing.
Twenty years after Egypt last qualified for the World Cup – at Algeria's expense – and 23 after Algeria's last participation, the fans' agitation was bound to be commensurate with the stakes. Then there's the "Egypt-Algeria" factor. The footballing archenemies have a long history of violent encounters. One of the oldest incidents in most fans' memories dates from the aforementioned 1989 World Cup qualifiers, when an Algerian player was accused of attacking an Egyptian doctor with broken glass, blinding him in one eye. (Earlier this year, the accused player claimed he was not guilty – but that a teammate of his was).
This year's online war began weeks ahead of the game. Egyptian and Algerian hackers exchanged virtual blows, temporarily bringing down or defacing chat forums and media and governmental websites. Fan-generated videos and montages set to patriotic music – glorifying the home team and promising the demise of the "enemy", – went viral.
Facebook groups stoked the fire. "I didn't fight in 1973, but I will be there in 2009!" on one side, "Algeria rules Egypt" (featuring a burning Egyptian flag) on the other, set the tone for the online conversation.
The media did not help much either. Television presenter Amr Adib angrily wondered, "Why do the Algerians hate us?", while the same channel aired photos of hooligan behaviour on the first leg of the game in Algiers.
A few, futile attempts were made to cool the hot heads. An "Algeria and Egypt, hand in hand" Facebook group of a few hundred followers reminded readers that it was "only a game". Egyptian-Algerian artist Ahmed Mekky produced a rap track entitled Wake Up! (a translation of which can be found here). More erudite fans dug into history to remind of the binational ties, citing Egypt's support to the Algerian liberation movement in the 1950s or Algeria's sending of a battalion to support Egypt in June 1967. All to no avail.
Violence broke out when the Algerians arrived in Cairo airport on Thursday evening – where a few hooligans waiting for them by the airport hurled stones at the players' bus, injuring three. Post-game, a few skirmishes were reported. Had Egypt not won, the toll would have surely been much heavier.
In Egypt, 32 were hospitalised, including 20 Algerians, and four buses of Algerian supporters had their windows smashed. Algeria's El Khabar reported the injury of dozens of Algerians; a rumour of the death of two Algerian fans was promptly denied by the Algerian ambassador in Cairo.
There were also reprisals against Egyptians in Algeria, with homes of Egyptians workers attacked. Ibrahim Mehleb, chief executive of the Egyptian Arab Contractors company, said that his company's employees in Algeria were instructed to remain at home a day before the game. "Only one incident has been recorded," he added, involving an employee being wounded by a glass projectile.
It will be a while before the football war is forgotten.
A memory that will endure, however, is the unique atmosphere into which the game thrust Egypt. In the two days preceding the game, Egyptians celebrated as if they had already won. The odds were against them – anything below a win with a two-goal difference would have meant the end of their World Cup dreams. But the fans never had any doubt. The first goal, in the second minute of the game, was followed by 93 excruciating minutes until the Egyptians scored their second – thereby securing a decisive playoff with Algeria for Africa's last World Cup slot. Post-game celebrations were – well if you didn't know, you'd think Egypt had actually won the World Cup.
But there's more to it than just the game. In a country where football acts as a catharsis for political frustration and a proxy for popular participation, the romanticism of an "all or nothing" game, with the theme of redemption, of a team rising from the ashes after a series of disastrous qualification games, was immensely appealing.
Plus, that a generation of youth was born after, or has no recollection of the last World Cup their elders played in, called for a unique achievement. The hundreds of thousands that took to the street were part of that call.
Today the atmosphere remains extremely charged, both in Algeria and in Egypt, as both teams are gearing up for the playoff in Sudan on Wednesday. The war/party goes on.