One had to stay up late Thursday night, not just because of the noisy celebrations that prevented sleep following Egypt’s 4-0 demolition of Algeria in the Africa Cup of Nations semi-final in Angola, but to keep an eye on the news for fear that angry Algerian fans might have dismembered Egyptians in Benguela. Memories are still vivid of Algerians assaulting Egyptian fans on the streets of host city Omdurman in November following the qualifier which put Algeria into the 2010 World Cup. After Algerian fans ran amok then – after winning – one could only imagine what their reaction would be after losing.
Thankfully, it was peaceful in Benguela, allowing all of us to relish in just one thought: that Egypt had clobbered Algeria, somewhat making up for the disappointment of missing out on South Africa.
We know cynics out there will dilute the 4-0 thumping by underlining that Algeria had been reduced to eight men by the game’s end. But every one of those three red cards was fully deserved and, actually, the Algerian players deliberately sought out a couple of them.
It looked like Algeria had lost its cool with all that fouling, but just the opposite. When they lost players number two and three, they knew exactly what they were doing. They did it on purpose to minimise the impact of the loss. It’s an embarrassment when you lose 4-0 playing with 11 men. But if you lose 4-0 and you’re three men down, people will inevitably say the matchup wasn’t fair.
Down 2-0 in the second half with only 27 minutes left and playing a man down, Algeria knew it was over. But it had to do something to look like it went down with honor. The Algerian strategy was to have you ask yourself: “How do you expect a team to play with just eight players and not lose by three or four goals? The plan backfired. After every red card that followed, Egypt scored. So instead of losing 2-0 with eight men, which would have looked admirable, Algeria lost 4-0, which looks pitiful.
Thursday night’s explosion of joy expressed throughout Cairo and across Egypt came 70 days after that tremendous soccer blow in Sudan, accentuated by the post-match spill-over in Omdurman. The loss to Algeria and the manhandling of our fans then brought about a patriotic fervor Egypt had not felt in years. Fate brought a fresh encounter in the Africa cup on Thursday and redemption again brought out the Egyptian flag onto the street. In defeat and victory Egyptians united, albeit only in football, the only thing we seem to rally behind.
The shattered dream of going to the World Cup had deflated us that at the start of the CAN Egyptians expressed only passing interest in the tournament. But as Egypt won one game after the other, interest, without going overboard, began to slowly grow in tandem. Before the game with Algeria there was relatively little hype in the media compared to the kind we experienced in November, incredibly spiteful from both sides which ripped the nations apart. This time there was a concerted effort, as if directed by the hierarchy, to tone things down. That definitely lowered the temperature on the street.
The fact that Egyptians were for the most part afraid of losing again to Algeria also helped calm things. Of course, some here relished the opportunity for revenge; but the general sentiment was that should we lose again, two knocks on the head hurt, as the Arabic proverb says. But we won, in a game that was infinitely more important for Egypt. Algeria won the bigger prize, a trip to the World Cup. Egypt needed to beat Algeria for the double goal of salvaging some pride, and reaching the CAN final. That little bit of extra hunger seemed the biggest factor playing on Thursday.
The concern now is that we think we won the African Cup. We have not. There’s still a final hurdle against Ghana tomorrow. Ghana has done well to get this far after losing many of their established stars to injury and depending mainly on youngsters from their U20 World Cup winning team. However, Egypt’s experience should win the day and the cup for a record third time in succession.
It would be heartbreaking not to go all the way, but even if Egypt contrives to lose in the final, we won’t feel too bad. Beating Algeria so comprehensively was, to many, as if we had won the cup itself.