The Most Important Soccer Game in the World (or at Least North Africa)
Egyptians celebrated as though they had just won the World Cup. In reality, they won a match that meant they would play Algeria one more time for a chance to qualify for the global soccer tournament. The celebrations, though, were necessary to relieve the tension that had been building in Cairo.
When it comes to soccer, Egypt and Algeria have a rivalry that seems better suited to North and South Korea than to two otherwise friendly North African Arab states. To make it to the World Cup, Egypt had to win the soccer game by three goals, a nearly impossible task. To force a play-off, they had to win by two, which still seemed unlikely.
The war started in September when Algerian hackers attacked Egyptian websites, including that of Hosni Mubarak, the president of Egypt. Since then, media in the two countries have been trading barbs, with the Algerians accusing Egypt of cheating in earlier games and Egyptians reciprocating with similar accusations.
When the Algerian team arrived in Cairo, their bus was pelted with stones and glass bottles as it made its way from the airport to their hotel. Two Algerian players ended up in the hospital because of the attack. An investigation by the Egyptian government claimed that the Algerians had broken the windows themselves and faked their injuries. I’m skeptical, especially considering that the next day an enthusiastic teenaged waiter told me proudly that he had been among those throwing bottles.
The night before the game the Algerian embassy was under heavy police supervision. Cars with Egyptian flags waving from their windows drove around the embassy in circles and honked their horns in a victorious rhythm.
I went to watch the all-important match with some friends in a pedestrian neighborhood in downtown Cairo that is lined with coffee shops. Several large screens projected the game to the hundreds, maybe thousands, of fans who wanted to watch the game in a crowd but couldn’t make it into the stadium. (The stadium holds some seventy thousand people, but the line for tickets lasted hours and prices doubled or tripled when they hit the black market.)
The fans waved flags, banged on drums, and, inexplicably, employed flamethrowers made from bottles of hairspray. (This is apparently a common practice during soccer games in Egypt.) I arrived an hour before the game and the energy level barely modulated the entire time. People were pumped.
When the game finally started, Egypt scored within the first five minutes. It seemed like a miracle. Maybe they actually would win by the three points necessary for them to qualify for the World Cup. Then the rest of the game proceeded like soccer games so often do. The excitement dropped off slightly.
At the halfway point I was tempted by the prospects of a beer, a comfortable seat, and no ten-year-olds hovering over my shoulders and I left the crowded pedestrian area for a crowded but considerably more comfortable hotel bar. The game continued tediously. By the end of the second half I was convinced that the match would end in the least exciting of possible outcomes: Egypt would win, but not by a margin big enough for them to qualify for the world cup.
Then, in the last five minutes of the game, the Egyptians scored again. The bar erupted. Grown men kissed the waiters and stood on chairs chanting, “Oh God!” and “Egypt! Egypt! Egypt!”
I left the bar and followed the crowds in the street as they made their way through downtown Cairo. Fans climbed on top of the statue of proto-nationalist leader Talaat Harb in the middle of the eponymous traffic circle and waved the Egyptian flag. Men and women danced in celebration. “Egypt! Egypt! Egypt!” everyone chanted. A group of young men put a flag down in the middle of the street and touched their foreheads to it in an imitation of Muslim prayer.
The only time I’d seen that kind of mass euphoria was in Oberlin when Barack Obama won the election. The only difference being that there are only three thousand Oberlin students, whereas there are twenty million Cairenes. And Oberlin students are more inclined to public nudity.
The celebrations moved through the city and into Tahrir Square, the focal point of Cairo’s traffic. The streets were blocked with revelers beating drums, chanting, waving flags, standing on cars, and spraying fire from aersol cans. There I ran into an Egyptian friend who is a socialist. His reaction was mixed. He was happy about his country’s victory, but he was put-off by the spectacle in the streets. “If we had just a tenth of these people here protesting something, that would be the fucking revolution,” he told me.
Every few minutes a big truck of riot police rumbled through the crowd. The soldiers in the cage cheered along with the celebrators but their presence seemed to be there to remind the revelers that they could be quickly dispersed if the government decided it was time. But for now it didn’t matter. Everyone was just happy to be moving on to the next round.
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