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After surviving a tense last-week doubleheader (including a playoff) with archrival Egypt that was laced with venom (on and off the field), Algeria heads to South Africa riding a tidal wave of emotion.
On the last day of qualifying, Algeria faced Egypt with a three-point lead in Group C and a better goal differential. But the Algeria-Egypt rivalry is one of the most intense in soccer, its history laced with violence, and all concerned knew anything could happen.
|Antar Yahia (right) was hurt in an attack before a game with Egypt in November, then scored the winning goal in the teams' resulting playoff.|
The game was played against the backdrop of the tension still emanating from a 1989 World Cup qualifier, also played in Cairo: With a berth to Italy 1990 on the line, the two teams engaged in one of the most vicious games in memory. The violence escalated after Egypt won 1-0 on a controversial goal, with the worst casualty being the Egyptian team doctor, who was hit with a broken bottle at a postgame press conference, allegedly thrown by an Algerian player, and lost an eye.
In 2009, the violence that had been feared began early. Algeria's team bus was stoned at the Cairo Airport and two Algerians played the next day with their heads bandaged as a result of injuries suffered in the attack. The game was just as dramatic. Egypt took an early 1-0 lead, but Algeria dug in and held the Egyptian offense at bay. But just when it appeared Egypt would fall short and Algeria would advance, Emad Meteab scored in the fifth minute of stoppage time to secure a 2-0 win for the Egyptians and force a one-game playoff.
The playoff was held in neutral Sudan four days later. Momentum seemed to be with Egypt, but Algeria rallied and won 1-0 on a spectacular goal by defender Antar Yahia, one of the Algerians who had played in Cairo wearing bandages.
The Desert Foxes will be making their third World Cup appearance. That's not much of a Cup pedigree, but the Algerians nonetheless have had an enormous impact on the tournament. In their World Cup debut in 1982, they upset West Germany 2-1 in their opening game. Algeria lost to Austria and beat Chile in its next two games, then had to wait for the following day's West Germany-Austria game to see if it would advance to the next round. A 1-0 win for West Germany would ensure that both teams advanced at the expense of Algeria, and that's exactly what happened.
In one of the most shameful episodes in World Cup history, the Germans scored in the 10th minute, then both teams sat back and played out the string. As a result of that game, all final first-round group games now are played simultaneously to avoid collusion between teams to ensure advancement.
While Algeria's 1982 experience left a mark on the World Cup, the Cup also unwittingly played a role in Algeria's independence from its colonial ruler France. Algerian players such as Rachid Mekhloufi and Mustapha Zitouni played in 1958 World Cup-qualifying games for France. But when the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) secretly recruited them to play for an Algeria XI to help promote the independence movement, the players sacrificed their chance to play at Sweden 1958. Instead of playing in the World Cup, they would play an integral part in putting a face to the Algerian independence movement. FIFA refused to recognize the Algerian team, but it played unofficial games for four years until Algeria gained its independence from France in 1962. Twenty years later, Mekhloufi would coach Algeria in the 1982 World Cup.
Ironically, the current Algerian national team has a distinct French connection: Twelve of its players in the Egypt game were born in France, sons of Algerian immigrants. Algeria's midfield stars Karim Ziani and Mourad Meghni hail from Paris, and Meghni (known as le petit Zidane) played on the French team that won the 2001 U-17 FIFA World Cup. Yahia, the playoff goal hero, was born in Mulhouse. His colleagues on the back line, Glasgow Rangers central defender Madjid Bougherra and Portsmouth fullback Nadir Belhadj, are also French-born, as is team captain and midfield enforcer Yazid Mansouri. This group, along with two Algerian-born players -- goalkeeper Lounes Gaouaoui and striker Rafik Saifi -- will form the core of coach Rabah Saadane's side.
Saadane leads the Desert Foxes to the World Cup for the second time. He was at the helm in 1986, when Algeria lost to Brazil and Spain and tied with Northern Ireland to finish at the bottom of its group.
The veteran coach already has gained the result all of Algeria wanted this time around: a win over Egypt to gain a 2010 World Cup berth. Saadane's charges weren't expected to topple "the Pharaohs" and win the group, so they are playing with house money in South Africa. That, combined with a truly battle-tested set of players, will make Algeria a tricky opponent, one not to be underestimated next summer.
Mark Young is a World Cup writer and researcher for ESPN.