A matter of life and death? (Egypt vs Algeria is more important than that)

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The most violent rivals in football will meet tomorrow in a game with the highest of stakes: a trip to next year's World Cup finals.

Had Bill Shankly hailed from Cairo rather than a Scottish mining village, he might have said: "Football's not a matter of life and death – but it can cost you your eyesight." Ask the Egyptian team doctor who lost an eye after being attacked with a broken bottle by an Algerian footballer when the two countries last met for a place in the World Cup finals two decades ago.

Tonight the two sides meet again for the same prize after a sequence of results that would make an atheist question the notion of free will. At stake is a place in next year's World Cup, no small amount of pride and the terms of a million arguments that will rage in North Africa long after the final whistle is blown.

The footballing giants of the Maghreb both have points to prove. Algeria have not taken part in the finals since 1986 and Egypt, for all their dominance of Africa's club competitions, haven't been there since 1990. There is a mutual antipathy – stoked, some believe, by a perceived failure on the part of Egypt to assist Algeria's efforts to throw off French colonial rule.

But the beautiful game has been cultivated in both countries, where the authoritarian regimes haven't been slow to notice that football can let off popular steam that might otherwise blow in their direction. "The elite [in Egypt] never lost faith in football's ability to soothe the masses," David Goldblatt wrote in his world football bible The Ball is Round.

With so much pumped-up pride and frustration placed on the outcome of a kick-around, matches may stop revolutions but they also start riots.

After a disappointing qualification campaign from group favourites Egypt, relative outsiders Algeria found themselves within touching distance of a place in South Africa. All they needed to do was avoid losing by two goals in Cairo last Saturday. A draw would have seen Algeria go through. A defeat by a single goal likewise. A win by three goals would have elevated Egypt above Algeria in their qualifying group and sent the "Pharaohs" south. In fact, the only score that could have persuaded anyone to stage a play-off between two of football's most antagonistic rivals was 2-0 to Egypt.

Thanks to a goal in the fifth minute of stoppage time from Egypt's Emad Moteab, that's exactly what happened. That left the two rivals level on points and goal difference in Group C. And so tonight, in Khartoum's twin city of Omdurman, they face each other again in a match that almost nobody wanted, fighting for the final African place in the 2010 championships.

Football's world governing body Fifa is hoping the Sudanese authorities can do a better policing job than Egypt managed at the weekend.

Despite weeks of warnings, an online war of words among supporters and public appeals for calm from cabinet ministers and the insistence of the Egyptian foreign ministry that all sides "had a desire for calm ahead of the crucial match", the Algerian players had barely made it out of the airport before they were attacked.

A stone-throwing mob surrounded the team bus and the latest gory chapter was opened. "We were bombarded with stones," Michel Gaillaud, the Desert Foxes' French doctor, recalled. The first rock was thrown hard enough to go in one side of the bus and out the other, he added. "People were screaming. We were lying on the floor. Someone started shouting, 'There's blood! There's blood!'"

It's a shout that's usually heard at some point in encounters between the two countries. Anyone listening to the pre-match comments from Egypt's captain Ahmed Hassan would have known what to expect: "Algeria once said their trip to Egypt will be joyful and full of entertainment, but I assure them it won't."

Sympathy for the stoned was in short supply in Cairo where commentators queued up to dispute the Algerians' claimed injuries, saying the attack had been faked in an effort to get the game cancelled.

While almost anywhere else in the world the game would have been called off, here Fifa looked the other way and it went ahead with two of Algeria's team playing with head bandages – a situation the coach wasted little time in blaming for the 2-0 defeat.

The backlash in Algiers was swift. Thousands of Algeria fans burned down Egyptian telecom giant Orascom's compound and stole or destroyed equipment worth $5m. EgyptAir's country headquarters were ransacked twice and looters chanted slogans at the firemen who turned up to put out the blaze. Algeria's ambassador was later summoned to the foreign ministry in Cairo for stern words. If this response seems overblown, anyone present at the 1989 match could have told authorities what to expect. Then, as now, the two teams had to play two matches to decide who would go to Italia '90. The first ended goalless, moving to a decider in Cairo where Egypt needed to win. This they did thanks to a first-half header from Hossam Hassan but the football wasn't really the point.

Ayman Younis, an Egyptian midfielder who would have played that day but for injury and is now a television commentator, remembers: "It was an incredible atmosphere. The stadium was full five hours before the game. The Algeria team was full of stars and, on the pitch, it was very crazy; 11 fights between every player. Everybody forgot what the coaches had to say and just fought instead. It was a battle, not a football match. It was like our war against Israel in 1973."

Then the fighting got worse. Brawling in the tunnel was followed by a pitched battle at the press conference that had to be broken up by heavy police intervention. By the time the two sides were parted, the Egyptian team doctor had lost an eye.

One of Africa's most admired players, Algeria's Lakhdar Belloumi – who scored the winning goal against West Germany at the 1982 World Cup – was blamed. He was convicted in absentia by an Egyptian court and a warrant issued for his arrest by Interpol. He has remained a virtual prisoner at his home until a personal appeal by Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika saw the warrant lifted this year.

The leading characters from that fateful match are once again to the fore. Many of the players are now coaching or commentating on tonight's game. Algeria are managed by Rabah Saadane, who led them in the 1989 decider. When asked about the pressure at a press conference in June he broke down in tears.

As for the peacemakers in Khartoum, hopes of a neutral venue have vanished in the last 48 hours. Egypt is perceived as the neighbourhood's sporting bully and around 15,000 riot police have been deployed. Last night, Algerian defender Madjid Bougherra summed up the mood, saying they were "ready for war".

Scotland seems to be everyone's first port of call when it comes to underlining the importance of a match and while Algeria's supporters didn't quote Bill Shankly they took inspiration from the movie Braveheart in a popular YouTube clip, getting William Wallace to call on all Algerians to turn out for the Sudan decider.

Thousands of fans like Adel, decked out in pointed hat, shirt and trousers in Algeria's colours, answered the call: "I am married with two children," he told the AFP in Khartoum. "I left my children, my wife, my home. I left everything and I came here."

Live coverage of the match starts at 17:15 on British Eurosport.

Great sporting rivalries

*India v Pakistan

With TV audiences often approaching one billion, the clashes between these two great cricketing nations can take on an epic quality. The stakes are only heightened when the two countries' relationship is soured by politics. Effigies of hated players have been burned in the streets; on some occasions, Test matches have even been played in neutral countries to dampen hostilities. Pakistan boast the better head-to-head record in tests, with 12 wins to India's nine.

*El Salvador v Honduras

In 1969 these Central American nations faced off against each other for a place at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. Honduras won the first game 1-0, while El Salvador triumphed in the second game 3-0. A month later, on 14 July, the two countries commenced a four-day war that resulted in around 2000 deaths. Of course the causes lay in deep socio-economic tensions. But tensions were stoked up so much by the needle fixtures that the conflict became known as the "The Football War".

*USA v USSR

Another rivalry with its roots in politics, this titanic battle took a further twist during the 1972 Munich Olympics when chaos reigned in the basketball final. Timing errors led to premature celebrations from the Americans before late scores swung the match in favour of the Soviets who ultimately prevailed. Despite vehement protests and official tribunals, the result stood, while the silver medals went unclaimed by the USA. Americans may prefer to look back on their amateur ice hockey team's astonishing success in the 1980 Winter Olympics, when en route to a gold medal they took on the feted Soviet side as heavy underdogs and won, in a stunning game that came to be known as the "Miracle on Ice".

*Japan v South Korea

They may have joined forces to host the World Cup in 2002, but relations between these two were a lot more tense following the Second World War. When they were drawn against each other for a set of World Cup qualifiers in 1954, South Korean president Syngman Rhee refused to allow the Japanese to set foot in his country. Both games were therefore played in Tokyo, and Rhee warned his countrymen: "Be prepared to throw yourselves into the ocean if you lose."

*Russia v Georgia

When the two countries' athletes flew to Beijing for the 2008 Olympic Games, they may not have anticipated any unusual rivalry. Then Georgia launched an assault on South Ossetia, and a brutal war began. In China, the stakes were rather lower – but some competitors couldn't forget the war at home. In the women's beach volleyball, the Georgian underdogs triumphed. Cristine Santanna – originally Brazilian – declared: "I was inspired by what is going on back in Georgia and it made me more determined to win." Her Russian opponents saw things differently. "Georgia were stupid to start a war with Russia," snapped a furious Alexandra Shiryaeva. "We are big and they are small."

Matt Fortune and Rahul Odedra

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