The ongoing debacle over the Egypt-Algeria World Cup qualifiers is childish and sad. It not only reflects badly on the values of today’s society but also upon the respective governments whose handling of the situation leaves much to be desired. Instead of calming tensions, both governments appear to be hyping the ante with verbal brickbats.
I’ll start off by coming clean. I’m no football fan. Indeed, I once had to be hauled off kicking and screaming to watch a Manchester United game and couldn’t wait to escape from the noise and the rage-contorted faces. I’ve never been able to understand why the ability, or otherwise, of grown men to kick a ball into a net affects spectators in such a personal way. And especially so in countries where many of the players and coaches are bought-in non-nationals.
There is something to be said, though, for the argument that football generally channels man’s latent warrior instincts allowing them to let off steam in a controlled environment. Governments also benefit, as the game keeps potential agitators busy. It also diverts the attention of the masses away from the country’s real issues and imbibes them with a sense of patriotism. Like any sport, it brings people of different ethnicities and cultures together, while, football, in particular, is a social leveler and offers inspiration to deprived youth seeking to escape poverty.
My own jaundiced view was cemented during a visit to the Spanish city of Grenada some 10 years ago. Following a tiring day at the wheel, we booked into an old hotel overlooking the sleepy town square hoping to get a good night’s sleep. It was while we were sipping cappuccino in the hotel’s outdoor coffee shop that all hell broke loose.
Thousands of flag-draped Real Madrid fans thronged to the area. Within no time, they were chanting, yelling, immersing themselves in a fountain, and throwing chairs, as we witnessed from the sanctuary of our room’s balcony. As the night progressed, they began intimidating drivers and rocking buses in an attempt to tip them over while, oddly – or perhaps not – the police kept their distance.
Not that I’m in any position to point a finger at the Spanish when I come from a country with, arguably, the world’s worst reputation for football hooliganism – England. There, orchestrated stadium brawls have resulted in injuries or death while the government prevents known thugs from traveling to games held overseas. Football hooliganism is a worldwide phenomenon and Egypt’s record isn’t exactly pristine either. In 2006, the Egyptian Football Association and the Libyan Football Federation were fined by the Confederation of African Football for failing to control rioting Egyptian and Libyan fans in Cairo International Stadium.
But although the latest incidents, thankfully, haven’t resulted in deaths, hatreds appear to run much deeper and at all levels; even diplomatic. Surely, Egyptians cannot feel any sense of pride that 20 Algerians were attacked following last week’s home game or that two Algerian players had bandaged heads during the match in Sudan.
Surely, Algerians should receive no patriotic kudos for trashing and burning the Orascom compound in their capital Algiers forcing Chairman Naguib Sawaris to evacuate Egyptian employees and their families. It’s unfortunate, also, that the Algerian authorities chose this sensitive moment to slap Orascom with a hefty $600 million tax bill. The attacks on Egyptian fans in Sudan following the playoff game which Algeria won 1-0 on Wednesday are also shameful.
With presidents hitting the phones and ambassadors being summoned, this is sounding more and more like a row between a man and his wife over too much salt in the bamya that ends up in the divorce court. It’s just a lot of nonsense over nothing of consequence, although, of course, the fans won’t see it that way.
Anyone who believes there is dignity in this dispute should read the foreign press. Commentators are enjoying a good old laugh at both countries’ expense. A writer for Yahoo Sport sarcastically wonders why the Confederation of African Football chose Sudan for the playoff before deciding that Somalia must have been booked-up.
The regional press takes a far more judgmental stance on the feud. “Where are the sensible people in this Arab world where “one football match took us back to acting like tribes? writes Abdel-Rahman in Yemen’s Al-Thawrah.
Wa’il Abdel-Fattah, writing in Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar, says presidents should not “join-in the demagoguery , while Muhammad Zain Al-Aidrus of Kuwait’s Siyassah likens the match to a military battle with Algerians calling for “victory or death and the Egyptian media evoking the spirit of the October 1973 war with Israel.
Others bemoan the fact that both Algerians and Egyptians seem more concerned with football than the plight of their brethren in Palestine.
As far as I’m concerned, they are all right. This squabble is ridiculous, degrading and shallow at a time when Palestinians are still experiencing the fall-out from Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, Iraq is still occupied and Lebanon is struggling to recover from the Israeli invasion. Both publics have their priorities skewed. Both are Arab nations that have suffered from Western imperialism and both should remember how they came together to oust the French from Algeria 55 years ago in friendship and brotherhood. For heaven’s sakes grow up people before this dispute over a game spirals out of control. True national pride rests in educational standards, healthcare, technological advances, freedom of speech and humanitarian values not on the abilities of youths kicking around a ball.
Gamal Abdel-Nasser who dreamt of a strong and united Arab world must be turning in his grave.
Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on Mid-East affairs and a syndicated columnist. She can be reached on sierra12th[at]yahoo[dot]co[dot]uk