By Bradley Hughes
On November 18th 2009, Sudan’s second largest city, Omdurman, played host to a rather
unique, last-minute international fixture. Four days prior, Egypt won their final group game in
World Cup qualifying against Algeria 2-0. This left FIFA in a predicament, as the result
brought the two North African nations level on all variables that determined who would get
the group’s top spot and ultimately qualify. Both finished Group C on 13 points, and with
identical goal records too. The next determiner, head-to-head aggregate, provided no luck
either, as Algeria had beaten Egypt 3-1 in their prior fixture. Away goals are not considered a
tie-breaker in CAF qualifying, and thus FIFA were left with two options: an arbitrary draw to
determine who goes through, or a winner-takes-all playoff to be held in a neutral venue.
Given what was at stake for both countries, it is no surprise that FIFA opted for the latter.
The chances of a tie-breaking playoff in these circumstances were highly unlikely, given all of
the determiners used if two teams have an identical haul of points, but the situation appears
all the more dramatic when the storied and bitter rivalry between Algeria and Egypt is taken
To call this rivalry intense would be a massive understatement. Ahead of their first encounter
in Group C, Algerian head coach Rabah Saadane, a seasoned manager in his fifth spell with
the Desert Foxes, wept in a press conference ahead of the clash, citing fears over his
family’s safety if Algeria were defeated. The journalists in the room with Saadane weren’t all
that shocked by the coach’s tears, given their context.
Saadane had previously managed Algeria in their World Cup adventure of 1986, but he was
absent three years later as they looked to secure back-to-back qualifications. The Algerians
were pitted against the Pharaohs in a two-legged playoff with only the victor going through to
Italia 90. As the first encounter ended in a goalless draw, Cairo played host to a second leg
that would become infamous less for the football on display, and more for the volatile scenes
after the match.
“It was a battle, not a football match. It was like our war against Israel in 1973” recalled
Ayman Younis, an Egyptian player who could be considered lucky to have missed the match
through injury. 100,000 spectators packed the Cairo International Stadium on 17th
November 1989, creating a fervorous atmosphere that would soon intensify after kickoff.
Egypt only took four minutes to open the scoring through the Pharaoh’s all-time top scorer
Hossam Hassan. In doing so, Hassan also collided with Algeria’s goalkeeper, leaving him
The incident set a precedent for the afternoon, where a feisty encounter ensued with no
more goals to add. Algeria claimed unfair treatment from the match officials, feeling they had
been pushed at the final hurdle rather than fallen. The final whistle was met with a pitch
invasion from the Egyptian camp, but the real drama was soon to unfold. Algeria, furious at
being dumped out of the competition, were unable to contain themselves in the midst of
chauvinistic Egyptian players parading around the stadium. Violence ensued between both
the fans and players, of which the most notorious incident would involve Egypt’s team
doctor, Algerian midfielder Lakhdar Belloumi and an arrest warrant…
Belloumi was accused of assaulting the doctor, even blinding him in one eye with a glass
bottle. The accusation has always been strenuously denied by Belloumi and Algerian
officials. Regardless, he would find himself a wanted man, even ending up as the recipient of
an Interpol arrest warrant. Belloumi was one of his country’s best players at the time, and the
Algerian FA quickly jumped to the defence of their man, declaring the Egyptians to be liars
who were just looking to bring down the national hero.
Historical events may be contributing factors to animosity between the two, notably Egypt’s
negotiations with Israel in the late 1970s, which would cause friction between the former and
several other Arabic nations, but the events in Cairo in 1989 seem to have been the main
source of hatred between the two, at least in the sphere of football. It personified the dark
side of high-stakes international games and the fragile nationalistic pride that follows them
around. Twenty years later, the onus was on both Algerian and Egyptian authorities to make
sure these events would not be repeated.
In October 2008, Algeria and Egypt were drawn together into Group C in the third and final
round of CAF qualifying, along with outsiders Zambia and Rwanda. A spot in football’s
premium international tournament is usually incentive enough, but this particular World Cup
was special. For the first time in history, the World Cup was being hosted on the African
continent. With only the winner of the group getting a spot in South Africa, both Algeria and
Egypt fancied themselves to make it to the showpiece event.
The two North African sides would meet in the second round of games, having both drawn
their openers. The match was to be held in Blida, an area known as the ‘City of Roses’. The
nickname’s suggestion of a calming environment would initially be lived up to, with a little
help from Algeria’s president at the time, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Under his orders, Egyptian
authorities would rescind the warrant for Lakhdar Belloumi’s arrest in April 2009. Algeria
reacted with gratitude and welcomed the Egyptians into their city.
Detente was central to the relative calm that preceded the game, but a large security
presence was still used to ensure tensions wouldn’t flare. The match would remain goalless
until around the hour mark, when Karim Matmour broke the deadlock by driving inside from
the right and drilling in a shot from just outside the 18 yard box. The atmosphere ahead of
the game may have been peaceful, but the goal led to contrastingly wild celebrations. Later
strikes from Adelkader Ghezzal and Rafik Djebbour gave Algeria a comfortable lead, and a
sense of belief that they could pip the favourites of the group to qualification. A late
consolation from Mohamed Aboutrika mattered little; Egypt were second-best, and Algeria
had aspirations of keeping their top spot.
Egypt, who had dominated the continent in the late noughties by winning both the 2006 and
2008 editions of the African Cup of Nations, had only managed to reach the finals of two
World Cups before their 2018 adventure in Russia, and not since the early 1990s had they
been successful in qualifying. With players the calibre of Aboutrika, Amr Zaki and Borussia
Dortmund’s Mohamed Zidan, Egypt were looking to buck this trend, and despite the early
setback remained confident that they could catch group leaders Algeria. They responded by
winning home and away to Rwanda, followed that up by a 1-0 victory in Zambia, and yet still
they remained second. Algeria had likewise won their next three matches, but Egypt had at
least managed to maintain the pace and keep destiny within their own hands as they
prepared to take on Algeria in the final match of the group.
A win, draw, or even a 1-0 defeat would see Algeria over the line, while a herculean effort
would be required from the Pharaohs’ to score three or more unanswered goals and leapfrog
their rivals to top spot. The first leg might have remained peaceful on both sides, but the
return fixture in Cairo would be far from rosy.
Ahmed Shobair, the Egyptian goalkeeper between the sticks during the infamous 1989
clash, accused commentators with a platform on TV of flaring up tensions and inadvertently
creating an environment for violence to thrive ahead of Group C’s finale. Certain figures in
the public didn’t help either. Alaa Mubarak, son of Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak,
is quoted around the time of the return leg saying; “When Algerians learn how to speak
Arabic they can then come and say that they are Arabs“. Newspapers in both countries
proved to be far less respecting of one another in the build up this time around. Insults were
thrown around across various media outlets and social platforms, but the real story unfolded
once the Algerian team arrived in Cairo.
“FIFA must suspend Egypt for one or two years from any match” said Algeria’s controversial
Minister of National Solidarity Djamal Ould Abbes, in regards to the way Algeria’s team and
fans were treated in Egypt. Reports flooded Arabic and international news in the build up to
the match of Egyptian fans pelting Algeria’s team bus with stones and debris. Three Algerian
players were injured in the incident. Despite on-board footage circulating on news outlets,
Egypt denied the accusations, claiming the bus had been damaged from the inside.
Questions were raised over whether the game should go ahead, but FIFA did nothing to stop
it in spite of the Algerian’s injuries.
Several hours before kick off, around 70,000 Egyptian supporters already packed the Cairo
International Stadium. Algeria walked out into the lion’s den with wounded players, some
even wearing bandages around their heads as a stark reminder of their welcome to the
country. Perhaps to the surprise of none, Algeria were shaky from the off and conceded a
scrappy goal just two minutes into the contest, with Amr Zaki bundling the ball over the line
and igniting the passion and optimism of Egypt’s supporters.
Algeria threatened a few times in this intensely nervous affair from set pieces out wide, but
the best they could come up with only forced El Hadary into some good saves. As it stood
though, the result still suited the losing team. Egypt needed a second goal to at least level
their records, but they could not force their way through again in the ninety minutes of
normal time. With one last play left in them, deep into injury time and on the verge of losing
all hope to their rival, Egypt put a cross into the box that was headed away and fell outside to
Sayed Moawad. The Al-Ahly full back put a second cross in, and this time struck gold as he
found his teammate, Emad Moteab, with a floated cross. Moteab had to make do with the
less powerful cross, and his decision to head the ball into the turf rather than go for power
paid dividends as the ball crept out of the reach of Lounes Gaouaoui and into the goal.
Deafening does not do the noise that followed this goal justice. Find archive footage on
YouTube and headphone users will be pained by overbearing, screeching commentators
from Egyptian TV. Amid the noise and chaos, one thing that becomes clear is how much this
goal and the result it produced truly means to Egyptians. Manager Hassan Shehata and his
team flood onto the field in delirium. Shehata even looks to be shedding tears at one point,
certainly juxtaposed with the tears seen in Saadane’s press conference ahead of their first
Egypt had produced a miracle, perhaps in dubious circumstances given Algeria’s rough
welcome, but the Pharaohs were thrilled to remain with a chance of qualification.
Unfortunately, Egypt’s victory caused unsavoury implications in the hours after the final
Speaking to journalists from France24 the morning after the game, an Algerian fan recalled
the violence that he and his fellow supporters were on the receiving end of in Cairo, going as
far to accuse the Egyptian security of abusing their powers and putting Algerian fans in
danger. In response, Algiers became home to incidences of assault on Egyptian migrants
and Egyptian-owned businesses. Buildings owned by EgyptAir and Orascom Telecom
among others were reportedly targeted by outraged Algerian fans.
For security as much as impartiality, the country of Sudan was chosen to host the dramatic
playoff scheduled for November 18th, almost exactly twenty years after their clash in 1989.
Even with the match taking place on neutral ground, Sudanese police were out in numbers
to prevent large scale violence. Ignoring the recommendations made by both countries’
governments for fans to avoid travelling to Sudan, Algerians and Egyptians able to get their
hands on tickets made their way south to the Al-Merrikh stadium just four days after the last
dramatic game had unfolded.
With the arena predictably rammed well before kickoff, the reported 15,000 police on hand to
keep the peace had a job on their hands. Another man with a tough job ahead of him that
night was Eddy Maillet, the unfortunate referee given the job by FIFA for this tense fixture.
The referee from Seychelles started the game, and had to stop it within a minute of kickoff to
show the contest’s first yellow card to Nadir Belhadj, who flew into a young Ahmed
Elmohamady. Despite the feisty start and a few later disputes on the pitch, no major
incidents occurred that required a red. The resulting free kick was the first test for Algerian
goalkeeper Faouzi Chaouchi to deal with. He did so rather comfortably, punching the deep
cross high and wide from his territory. Algeria were soon down the other end, but again this
led to nothing as Chaouchi’s more experienced counterpart Essam El-Haddary dealt with a
header from close range well.
Rather than wilt under the pressure, some players seemed to relish the vocal fans in Sudan
that night. Rafik Saïfi epitomised this passion after drawing a foul near the corner flag by
beating his chest and imploring the travelling Algerians to outdo their noisy Egyptian
counterparts. The free kick that followed certainly gave them something to cheer about, as it
curled on target and would have given Algeria the breakthrough had El-Haddary not reacted
to tip it over the crossbar. Still level, but with the game tipping in their favour, Algeria made it
count ten minutes later through Antar Yahia.
Yahia, a journeyman centre back playing at the time for VfL Bochum and one of the more
vocal critics in the aftermath of the controversy surrounding the bus incident, capitalised on a
long ball and volleyed a fierce effort off the underside of the bar to give Algeria the lead. The
team celebrated at the corner flag, with their fans proudly waving the star and crescent flags
of their nation. The first half was soon coming to a close, but with another forty-five minutes
still to play, Egypt had ample time to stage a comeback.
The second half naturally saw Egypt playing with a reinvigorated attacking intent. Two
particularly important challenges were required by Algerian defenders to prevent the
imminent threat on their goal in the opening ten minutes; first a crunching slide tackle to stop
Mohamed Zidan just outside the 18 yard box, and soon after another last-ditch effort, this
time to deflate the threat from a good crossing position. Algeria were not completely on the
backfoot, exemplified by a good chance from a cross on the stroke of the hour mark, but
their performance was marked by dogged defending and some exceptional goalkeeping
from Faouzi Chaouchi, a young goalkeeper with little international experience. In what was
by far the most high-stakes and high-pressure game of his career up to this point, Chaouchi
pulled off a string of saves to keep Algeria ahead, and his time-wasting measures with the
ball only increased his popularity among the Algerian faithful.
Time ticked away, perhaps too slowly for Saadane, but when the final whistle was blown
Algeria’s players and fans erupted in delight. Booking a place in the World Cup is invariably
a cause for celebration, but having done so at the expense of a fierce rival, especially with
the controversies surrounding the build up to this game, made victory just that much sweeter
for Algeria. Chaouchi, one of the stars of the show, expressed his joy rather vividly, as he
straddled the crossbar of the goal he had protected for the second half and pumped his fists
to the adoring crowd behind him. The Desert Foxes were on their way to South Africa, and
the celebrations back home reflected the size of this achievement.
Unfortunately for the Algerians, and for anybody that had to watch their teams performance
in South Africa, Saadane’s men were unable to find the net even a single time in their three
group games, and finished rock bottom of their group. Their tournament started with a
1-0 defeat to Slovenia in a game described by the Guardian as “surely the worst match of
the World Cup”, in which Algeria’s hero-turned-zero goalkeeper Chaouchi was caught out by
Robert Koren, or perhaps the oft-criticised Jabulani, to give Slovenia the lead. Perhaps the
Guardian’s criticism was a bit hasty though, as Algeria’s next game would prove somehow
even duller, as the only memorable incident would be a telling off dished out by Wayne
Rooney to the booing Three Lions fans, who watched England play out a goalless draw with
the Algerians. A defeat to the United States confirmed their exit from the tournament. No
doubt this pleased the Egyptians, who had enacted some revenge earlier in the year by
securing their third African Cup of Nations title in a row, during which they managed to
trounce Algeria 4-0.
When looking back on these events, it is debatable which side really deserve the bragging
rights; Algeria, for beating their rival to a spot at the World Cup, albeit to fail miserably once
they got there, or Egypt, who despite missing out on the biggest tournament of the football
calendar did at least achieve success in scooping up their third African Cup of Nations title.
All that is certain is that this unique, volatile and passionate North African rivalry will no doubt
rage on long after that eventful night in Sudan, one can only hope in a more peaceful
manner off the pitch.