An Egypt fan celebrates his country’s second goal during the World Cup qualifying match between Egypt and Algeria in Cairo. Right: Rafik Halliche of Algeria is helped off the field after the game
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.
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.
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.
So while Scotland seems to be everyone's first port of call when it comes to underlining the importance of a match and although Algeria's supporters didn't quote Bill Shankly, they did take inspiration from the movie Braveheart in a popular YouTube clip, getting William Wallace to call on all Algerians to turn out in force for the Sudan decider.