In what seemed like an unlikely scenario, six-times African Champion record holders Egypt today beat staunch North African rivals Algeria 2-0 in the final leg of the World Cup African group C qualifier to book a tiebreaker match in Sudan on Wednesday.
Egypt entered the game on 10 points to Algeria's 13, a win would bring them level on thirteen points each; but with Algeria's superior goal difference, Egypt had to win by at least two goals to level the score and book a third and final tiebreaker match on neutral ground. Three goals would have ensured Egypt's automatic qualification to the World Cup finals to be held in South Africa next summer.
Algeria, who had beaten Egypt 3-1 in the first leg in Algiers earlier this year, had not lost a single match since and needed only to avoid losing in Cairo by a two goal difference to fulfill its World Cup dreams.
But, the massive support of 80 million Egyptian fans—who continued to believe despite the poor odds—seemed to have given the Pharaohs the edge they so badly needed. Egyptian supporters could be seen everywhere, taking Cairo's streets by storm, inundating the web with football euphoria and most importantly, filling up Cairo's international stadium to its maximum 80,000 capacity.
The lead up to this decisive match had been a whirlwind in of itself.
When the African group draw was first announced in 2007 at a FIFA gala in Geneva, Egyptians were ecstatic with the results. Most critics also backed Egypt for easy qualification over Zambia, Rwanda, and Algeria.
Algeria—once a dominant force in African football up until the '80s—had since suffered an extended lull while Egypt continued its century-long Africa domination culminating with an unprecedented back-to-back African Nations Cup wins (Egypt are current holders) - Algeria had failed to qualify for either cup.
But ever since Egypt's defeat to Algeria in Algiers, the Fennecs seem to have found their spirit. A renewed sense of confidence—bordering on entitlement—helped the talented Algerians maintain a perfect record leading up to the highly anticipated match in Cairo.
The tension between the historic football rivals reached an all time high during the build-up. Fans exchanged heated songs and videos on YouTube singing their adulations for their team and mocking the other. Egyptian and Algerian TV stations could not resist the international face-off and entered into the fray stoking passions and capitalizing on the massive interest of viewers.
The importance the two nations placed on qualifying for the world's greatest sporting event also had something to do with the long wait. Egypt last qualified for the World Cup almost 20 years to the day—ironically at the expense of Algeria—while Algeria has not been in the finals for even longer with a 24 year-long wait.
"Beating Algeria is all we have been thinking about for days," said Ahmed Attiah, a staunch Egypt supporter in Chicago. "It seems that life back home has been brought to a standstill with only one thing on every one's mind: qualification."
The sentiment was not much different for Algerian fans, a nation that longed to restore football glory missing for generations. For weeks, Algeria has been at a complete standstill with only the Egypt game as the topic of conversation at street cafes and on the television sets.
The day finally drew near and the Algerians descended on Cairo. Despite the violent reception that the Fennecs were met with outside Cairo's airport, match day seemed better organized with security beefed up. The stadium, a sight to behold, was a grand festival of cheering, flag-waving fans—mostly Egyptian.
The referee blew his whistle to commence the match and the Pharaohs were quick to give the fans much to cheer about. Zamalek FC's Amr Zaki latched unto a loose ball and managed to drive the ball into the net scoring less than three minutes into the game and throwing the fans into wild jubilation. It seemed like it would be Egypt's day, and supporters began to hope for total domination and an onslaught of goals.
The Algerians responded well however, managing to prevent further goals and to even create a few chances of their own. But Egypt's stalwart goalie, Essam El Hadary, shined with a couple of breath-taking saves.
With the Algerians holding the game to a 1-0 score line well into extra-time, they seemed set for automatic qualification. It now seemed that it would be Algeria's day, the Algerian fans stood up impatiently with the ultimate prize finally so close within grasp.
But Ahly FC's Emad Meteb had something else to say when he headed the ball into the net with only seconds left on extra-time. The dramatic timing of the goal and its historic consequences sent the anxious Egyptians into an eruption of cheers, chants, and hugs. Massive celebrations quickly filled Cairo's streets and are likely to continue well into the night.
Just like that, the odds had been beaten and the playing field leveled once again. The Algerians, having come so close, could not hold back the tears as the dream that seemed a virtual reality seconds ago was now a distant dream yet again.
Yet all is not lost for the Algerians, the two North-African titans will face off for a third match, this time on neutral ground in Sudan on Wednesday. The odds this time are in Egypt's favor, coming off a massive morale boost and likely to have the lion's share of fans who will surely descend in droves unto their southern neighbor.
Neutral fans around the world also seem to favor Egypt over lesser known Algeria, especially given its proud record of African domination and its performance at the last confederations cup where it beat Italy and lost narrowly to Brazil.
At the end of the day, the drama that makes football such a world phenomenon is being epitomized in this rivalry that just continues to drag on—if not escalate. Who will have the last laugh after the grand finale on Wednesday? Only time will tell, but until then, rest assured the question will be hotly debated on TV sports programs and on-line chat forums.
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