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Arab unity put to severe test as Egypt and Algeria contest World Cup qualifier

War of words could again spill over into violence as Arab rivals contest the last African slot

An Algerian fan on the field before the start of the World Cup qualifier between Egypt and Algeria

An Algerian fan runs on to the field before the start of the 2010 World Cup qualifying playoff between Egypt and Algeria in Khartoum. Photograph: Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters

Arab unity faces a severe test tonight ‑ not over attitudes to Israel, Iraq, or any of the usual hot items on the Middle Eastern political agenda, but over the battle between the Egyptian and Algerian football teams for the last African slot in the World Cup. Not surprisingly, it's being dubbed "the mother of all matches".

Passions are running at fever pitch in advance of the qualifier in Khartoum, where 15,000 police are on the streets, braced for trouble. Official calls for sportmanship have been ignored and the fans are being strictly segregated.

The last game, when Egypt won 2-0, was followed by riots in Algiers, where the offices of Egyptian companies were ransacked by mobs and staff evacuated. Before the Cairo kickoff on Saturday three Algerian players were injured when their team bus was pelted with stones. That was condemned as a "massacre" by the Algerian media. Algeria's president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, called his counterpart Hosni Mubarak twice to discuss the crisis.

Relations between Arab governments are normally couched in the language of solidarity and brotherhood.

Egypt's 1952 revolution and the leadership of the charismatic Gamal Abdel Nasser were sources of inspiration in Algeria's struggle against French colonialism. This makes no difference to the fans, who are ignoring their equally authoritarian governments and basking in what one Arab observer calls "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". Mohammed Salah writes in the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat: "These peoples have abandoned politics for football, where they compensate for their difficulties with politicians."

Newspapers and sports websites have seen weeks of furious exchanges. Algerians insult Egypt for having made peace with Israel; Egyptians taunt Algerians for slaughtering each other during their bloody civil war in the 1990s. Others are blamed too: al-Arabiya TV reported today that Egypt has deported an Israeli journalist who came to Cairo to support the Algerians, thus inflaming Arab divisions.

The rivalry between the Maghreb neighbours is notorious: in 1989, when Egypt eliminated Algeria in a World Cup qualifier, an Algerian player gouged out an eye of the Egyptian team doctor with a broken bottle. Algeria has not made it to the World Cup since 1986; Egypt not since 1990.

So the stakes in this "hate match" are high. Still, some are trying to calm things down: Issam, an Egyptian from Alexandria, chose today to announce his engagement to his Algerian sweetheart, Hanan Hajij, "to reaffirm the depth of relations between their two countries".

Some spoilsports see the whole thing as a distraction from the issues that really count. "If an Arab president calls another, the conversation should be about the issues concerning the [Arab] nation and not about a football match," says pundit Jihad al-Khazen ‑ Lebanese, neutral and worried about the political implications. "Egypt, with its position of leadership and its Arab rank, and Algeria, the country of a million martyrs, should be co-ordinating their efforts to defend the al-Aqsa Mosque [in Jerusalem]. Instead, they are preoccupied with the madness of the Egyptian and Algerian publics, distracting them from what is most important."

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Arab unity put to severe test as Egypt and Algeria contest World Cup qualifier

This article was published on at 13.54 GMT on Wednesday 18 November 2009. It was last modified at 14.25 GMT on Wednesday 18 November 2009.

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  • NuMexicola NuMexicola

    18 Nov 2009, 2:36PM

    "The rivalry between the Maghreb neighbours is notorious: in 1989, when Egypt eliminated Algeria in a World Cup qualifier, an Algerian player gouged out an eye of the Egyptian team doctor with a broken bottle."

    What the fu.....

    Makes the England fans' hobby of hurling plastic patio furniture at johnny foreigner seem rather quaint.

  • elscollonsdelgos elscollonsdelgos

    18 Nov 2009, 2:55PM

    The rivalry between the Maghreb neighbours is notorious

    Egypt's not a Maghreb country, is it?

    It doesn't put Arab unity to the test at all. It just shows the ignorance of thinking it was there in the first place, or maybe that's what some would like us to think.

  • PoliteElliot PoliteElliot

    18 Nov 2009, 3:00PM

    If there's trouble tonight they should bar both teams from the World Cup finals to set an example. We don't need this kind of thing in the tournament - not in the finals nor in the qualification stages.

  • Aksil Aksil

    18 Nov 2009, 3:04PM

    Short words:
    - There is NO such thing called Arab unity. There is a fictive PETRO-Arab unity.
    - Northern africans are proud of their amazigh (berber) heritage, and Egyptians of their vanished pharaoh heritage. It's all in the genes!
    So long,

  • IanBlack IanBlack

    18 Nov 2009, 3:20PM

    Staff Staff

    Are Algerians Arabs? I thought the western extent of the "Arabs" was the Egypt/Libya border. The Guardian will be calling the Iranians 'Arabs' next.

    algerians are not all arabs - some are berbers - but yes it is an arab country.
    it is a member of the arab league and the arab maghreb union and arabic is the country''s official language.

    iran is a different matter.

  • Zookrif Zookrif

    18 Nov 2009, 4:00PM

    Check your facts before falling in the trap of the Guardianistas. As pointed out by elscollonsdelgos, Egypt is not a maghreb country!
    The people in these countries among many in the developping world have a tendency to channel their everyday grivences, caused by the usual culprits: corrupt governements, poverty, no jobs, no security and no justice, into the rare excitement of a national event such as a world cup qualifier. The wild and often violent behaviour of a minority can be inexplicable. Nothing stands in the way least of all the joke of Arab unity. Consider the events of last saturday: the Algerian team arrived at Cairo for the game only to be attacked by a mob of angry Egyptian supporters who threw heavy bricks at the coach carrying the team. There were broken windows and glass everywhere while the Algerian team had no choice but cower inside. Several players were injured two of which played the game with their heads bandaged. With admirable barvery, the Algerian team did not succumb to the terror and played the game against all expectations. If this attack happened in Europe, Egypt would have been disqualified and probaly banned from the competetion altogether. But the FIFA applies special rules to third world countries. The assumption is probably: let them be they're used to it. I think it is shameful for the FIFA not to apply some punishment or sanction in these violent events. With this attitude it had made sure that a similar event or worse will happen again tonight in Khartoum.

  • badtothabone badtothabone

    18 Nov 2009, 4:22PM

    As Ian Black points out, many, but not all, Algerians are Arabs. In a footballing context, Zinedine Zidane's parents are both Berbers from the Kabylian region, so on those occasions when Zidane has been referred to as the greatest Arab footballer of all time, it's more than a little misleading since he's not Arabic. Neither is he the only truly great footballer of Algerian stock: Rabah Madjer and Lakhdar Belloumi were also absolute world-class in their day.

  • Aksil Aksil

    18 Nov 2009, 4:44PM

    Sir, you surprisingly know the "officials" from the junta in power, but not the FACTS.
    You may ask for books and videos from your local library, take a trip to noth-africa or do both. Algerians are "arabs"...since when?! In your terms, Sudanese are of arab descent as well, since the dictator Omar Elbachir says so!
    So long,

  • Constantine1 Constantine1

    18 Nov 2009, 5:49PM

    North Africans are not Arabs.
    They are Amazigh (otherwise known as Berbers).

    The ruling dictatorship helped by the arab league and the conservative petro-regimes is imposing on its people a system, an ideology, a language, a culture and a version of islam(salafism/wahabism) alien to its traditions.

    The mother tongues of algerians are:
    -berbrya or derja(vernacular of the majority, deriving from berber and arabic essentially) ,
    -tamazight(berber): the original language of all North Africans.

    May I remind the authors, that Algerians and Morrocans, especially tamazight speakers, are still struggling by peaceful means for democracy and the recognition for an equal status for their tamazight language. The governments repress democratic movements and parties, preferring alliances with Islamists. Algeria has amnestied terrorists of their crimes, coopted some of their leaders into governments and accepted to adopt part of their program. With the islamists opacity , fraud and corruption continue along with the process of wahabism-reislamisation...

  • Aksil Aksil

    18 Nov 2009, 7:31PM

    from THAT'S IT! ALGERIA HAVE QUALIFIED FOR THE 2010 WORLD CUP IN SOUTH AFRICA! The pitch is immediately invaded, fireworks are set alight, torches lit - and there are some fans on the pitch, too. Chaouchi climbs atop his goal and sits on the bar cheering - that's an image for the ages. Algeria may be a thousand miles from home but they will never have felt better. What a win for them against what has been, admittedly, an extremely underwhelming Egypt side.

  • freepalestine48 freepalestine48

    18 Nov 2009, 11:13PM

    algeria is an arabic country, just like morocco, tunisia, libya, eygpt & northern sudan. essential any arabic speaking county is arabic, not to diificult to understand really..........

    anyways as an arab (half moroccan & half palestinian) there was only ever going to be one winner and that was an arab team at the world cup. personally i think algeria deserved the win as eygpt were trying underhand tactics the whole game it was like they had watched a video of ronaldo & rooney's best dives before the match!!!!!

  • Aksil Aksil

    19 Nov 2009, 7:03PM

    essential any arabic speaking county is arabic, not to diificult to understand really..........

    most palestinian speak hebrew --> palestinains as Jews. I am sure yo uwon't like that! ...same for us! JUst use common sense: Northern africans learned arabic through Islam, period! They learned it, they spesk it but they are NOT Arabs, and NEVER will be!


    19 Nov 2009, 10:31PM

    Surprising and funny to see football mixed with politics, history, arab unity, and identity. Moreover, revealing hidden hatered inside some. I am sure non of those who wrote wrong and irrespectable comments about the Middle East Leader; EGYPT, represent any of their countries. Hence, I won't waste my time here with you.

    Yet, take my advice, go visit history and check the Egyptian leading role regarding your countries, and maybe it would be better if you also go educate yourself and help your own countries solve your problems and struggles first...

    And please send my regards to the Egyptian teachers, managers, engineers, doctors,....etc spread around the world, specifically in the so called Arab world.


  • Aksil Aksil

    20 Nov 2009, 3:22AM

    Trure, there are Egyptians in the so-called Arab world as they were Algerians between hands of their so-called egyptian "Arab brothers" ...after they welcomed you with flowers. Those algerians TRULLY know the outcome of such fake and twisted propaganda.
    The son of your dictator do NOT want to see your team loose a home game at the expense of what the whole world has seen, Too bad!.
    Sould you use your wisdom (is any) to NOT do it AGAIN, I hope.
    I am not trying to use hard words, but just make sure you show th world (some day) that you can lift your spirit and come back clean, to make sure the rest of the world won't take you for the same Evil you might be.
    With respect to other cultures NOT willing to trade their dignity for whatsoever is the outcome, even after welcoming you as BROTHERS for the simple reason you were muslims, Egyptians got jobs in Algeria, for the most part as Arabic language teachers. They went back to Egypt with dollars in their pockets and made their families very happy. Then what? Today, the facts are showing us the other side of the coin: You, egyptians, DO NOT deserve our friendship anymore. You betrayed us, you disrespected us and with that: You went too low to the damps!

  • politicallyuncorrect politicallyuncorrect

    20 Nov 2009, 9:06AM

    there are a lot of misconception by people seeing Algeria as either Arab or Berber.
    It is simple, like Morocco and Tunisia, Algeria has different ethnies, the berbers which were there before anyone, includes the Kabyles, the touareg, chaoui and many more. The main Ethny in Algeria though is Arab, although there is a lot of mixture with turks.
    Now it seem some people, being proud of their ethnical is misleading others.
    Algeria is simply a multicultural country with a corrupt state.

  • Constantine1 Constantine1

    20 Nov 2009, 10:20AM

    Again, North Africans including Egyptians are not Arabs.
    Arabic the language of the Koran is sacralised and imposed (forced) as the only language of education excluding the mother tongues such as Tamazight(Berber) and derja spoken daily by all the people. Arabic is analogous to Latin. No wonder the system of governance is medieval and feudal in these dictatorships of North Africa and Middle East. No freedoms, no human rights . No justice..No rule of law...

    America, Canada, NZ, Australia,West Indies,India, Sri Lanka,...near us,Wales,Scotland and Ireland though they use practically the same language as the English never claim to be English !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    The ambition of arabism is to islamize and arabize the World. Even violence is legitimized. We have come belatedly to realize that arab nationalism has coalesced with islamism to become more agressive and virulent. Needless to list all the crimes and terrorist acts,threats and intimidations...

    Football and its fans are being manipulated by machiavelian fascist governments to pull wool over the eyes of the populace.

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