Friday, November 13, 2009
No love lost between Egypt and Algeria
The bid to represent Africa at the continent's first World Cup finals reaches its climax this weekend, with six teams harbouring hopes of taking the last three available places.
Riot police stand guard as an Egyptian football fan jumps over others waiting in line for tickets in Cairo (GettyImages)
Yet threats of violence in the Egyptian capital Cairo are overshadowing Africa's final round of qualifiers as the Pharaohs host Algeria in an explosive encounter on Saturday.
The bitter North African rivals are fighting for Group C's World Cup ticket - while Group A's will be decided by Cameroon or Gabon, and Group B's by Tunisia or Nigeria.
With Ghana (Group D) and Ivory Coast (Group E) having already reached South Africa, the weekend's remaining qualifying interest lies in which four teams will reach January's Nations Cup in Angola.
Yet the tie of the round undoubtedly takes place in Cairo, where Africa's defending and six-time champions Egypt take on Algeria in Group C.
The group is so delicately poised that if the Egyptians win by two goals, their record (points, goals scored, goal difference and head-to-head record) will be identical to their Algerian opponents, thus necessitating a play-off in neutral Sudan on Wednesday.
"Algeria have the advantage, and it is up to Egypt to make the running," says Algeria captain Yazid Mansouri. "We can leave a mark on the history of our country and playing in Cairo is going to be the match of our lives."
To say this match has previous history would be a gross understatement - as evidenced by the stones thrown by Egyptian fans at the bus transporting the Algerian team to their hotel on Thursday.
When the teams last met in a qualifier with a World Cup place at stake, all hell broke loose. The year was 1989 when Algeria, who had represented Africa at the 1982 and 1986 World Cups, travelled to Cairo needing just a point to reach Italia '90.
After a goalless draw in the first leg, the hosts needed to win to qualify - which they did (1-0) - but it was what happened afterwards that prompted both Egypt's and Algeria's foreign ministers to call for 'sportsmanship and brotherly love' this week.
Near the dressing rooms, a fracas broke out in which the Egyptian team doctor lost an eye - leading to an international warrant for Algerian legend Lakhdar Belloumi, who supposedly caused the damage with a broken bottle.
Despite taking place 20 years ago, the memories are fresh in the mind as Algeria arrive needing just a draw or a one-goal defeat to make South Africa.
"It is a unique moment - without doubt the most important of our careers," says Egypt skipper Ahmed Hassan. "Our generation has dominated African football for the last few years, but only qualifying for the World Cup will put a proper seal on that."
Group C's other group game sees Rwanda hosting Zambia in Kigali on Saturday - and the visitors will qualify for Angola 2010 unless they lose by two goals.
That just leaves some traditional giants of the African game squabbling to reach the finals. Among them, Cameroon, Tunisia and Nigeria have represented the continent at a total of 12 World Cups - but one of them will miss out this time.
Boasting a record five World Cup qualifications, the Indomitable Lions - who lead Group A rivals Gabon by just a point - need to win in Morocco on Saturday to cement their qualification.
Bottom of the group until the arrival of coach Paul Le Guen in July, the 1990 quarter-finalists boast a 100% record from the Frenchman's three games in charge.
"Paul is ambitious and although it is a tough assignment, he has the talent to do it," says Cameroonian great Patrick Mboma. "All the ingredients are there because Cameroon possess excellent footballers."
Indeed they do, most notably in the form of three-time African Footballer of the Year Samuel Eto'o, but they must be wary of a Moroccan side bidding to reach the Nations Cup. The Atlas Lions have contested every Nations Cup since 1998 but - two points adrift of third-placed Togo in Group A - will miss out this time unless they beat Cameroon in Fez.
On Thursday, the Moroccans failed in a desperate late bid to be awarded points by the Court of Arbitration for Sport after claiming Togo had fielded an ineligible player in an earlier qualifier. That failure will hurt as much as the withdrawal of three injured players - veteran defender Abdeslam Ouaddou and midfielders Mbark Boussoufa and Kamel Chafni- in addition to the suspension of star striker Marouane Chamakh.
But should Cameroon fail in Morocco, the Gabonese can steal the World Cup spot by winning in Togo - which would be a sensational result for a country that has only ever contested three African Nations Cups.
Finally, onto Group B where Nigeria's World Cup woes will continue if leaders Tunisia manage to win in Mozambique on Saturday.
The Super Eagles reached three consecutive World Cups between 1994 and 2002, thanks to the industry and input of Jay-Jay Okocha, Sunday Oliseh and the rest, but they will miss their second straight finals unless they win in Kenya and Tunisia slip up in Maputo.
"It was not great watching the last World Cup on television and for many of the players, this could well be their last chance to play at the World Cup," says striker Yakubu, injured for much of the campaign. "We do not expect an easy match in Kenya, but we are condemned to win this game."
Defender Danny Shittu and midfielder Sani Kaita miss out through injury, with Spain-based ace Kalu Uche returning to the team in place of Kaita. Meanwhile, Nigeria President Musa Yar'Adua has written a personal letter to the Eagles urging them to win in Kenya and qualify for the World Cup.
Further encouragement will come from the chaos in the Kenyan camp, where coach Antoine Hey walked out this week after interference from local football authorities. Ordered to recall four players, the German made good his threat not to lead the side unless he was given a free hand - and so has been replaced by his deputy Twahir Muhiddin.
Although Tunisia will reach the World Cup with victory in Mozambique, no visiting Group B side has managed to score in Maputo so far. While the Mozambicans must do better than Kenya to ensure a first Nations Cup since 1998, the Carthage Eagles are bidding for a fourth straight World Cup.
"We need concentration, passion and - above all - we must take our chances: that's how we will get to South Africa," says Tunisia captain Karim Hagui.
With Group D already settled in terms of World Cup and Nations Cup qualification, that just leaves Group E where something is up for grabs. Ivory Coast have already won the group but Malawi will reach the Nations Cup for the first time in a quarter of a century as long as they perform better in Burkina Faso than Guinea do in the Ivorian capital Abidjan.
As well as Ghana and Ivory Coast, the other teams joining Angola in January's finals are Cameroon, Gabon, Tunisia and Nigeria, Algeria, Egypt, Mali, Benin and Burkina Faso.