The first rock was thrown with such force that it traveled through the bus, smashing windows on its way in and out, Michel Gaillaud, a French doctor, recalls.
Panicked, he and the football players he treats dived for cover.
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“We were bombarded with stones,” says Gaillaud. “People were screaming. We were lying on the floor. Someone started shouting, ‘There’s blood! There’s blood!”‘
And fair play died.
Imagine the outrage and quick condemnations that would have followed had this been a star-studded team like England, Spain, France or Portugal that was attacked by hooligans in Egypt before a vital World Cup qualifier.
Imagine the stern repercussions had David Beckham, Fernando Torres, Thierry Henry or Cristiano Ronaldo ended up, like midfielder Khaled Lemmouchia, with a chunk of glass embedded in his scalp.
But these victims were Algerians. Africans. Nobodies, apparently. Because, to football’s shame, the show went on as if nothing had happened. Having to field two players with head bandages, as Algeria did, is no way to play the game.
Unsurprisingly, it lost 2-0.
A lucky escape for football officials. Who knows how Cairo might have boiled over had Saturday’s result not kept alive Egyptian hopes of qualifying for the World Cup?
Even in victory, tempers flared. Egypt’s Health Ministry says 12 Egyptians and 20 Algerians were hurt in post-match scuffles.
“Letting us play this match was reckless. I scarcely dare think what would have happened if we had equalized. We, the players, would have been in danger,” Lemmouchia told French sports newspaper L’Equipe.
And what says FIFA, the supposed guardian of international football and the rules meant to govern it?
It is at a loss to explain why the match wasn’t postponed or moved to another less heated venue after the Algerian bus was pelted with stones two days before the encounter, on a short trip from Cairo’s airport to their hotel.
When called, FIFA’s media office asked for a list of written questions and then provided this e-mailed response: “FIFA is currently reviewing the reports and documentation received on this matter. We are therefore not in a position to make any comments at this time, as the process is still ongoing.”
The 2-0 result was enough for Egypt to finish joint top with Algeria of their qualifying group. To decide which squad goes to South Africa next June, they’ll compete in a playoff in Sudan on Wednesday.
Egypt is lucky to get this second chance.
As host, it was responsible for the Algerians’ security. FIFA rules are clear: “Match organizers must guarantee, in cooperation with the local police authorities, the safety of the participating teams and their officials as well as the FIFA match officials during their whole stay, from arrival to departure.”
The violence has precedent. In 1993, FIFA annulled Egypt’s 2-1 win against Zimbabwe in Cairo in World Cup qualifying after Zimbabwe goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar said he was struck on the head by concrete and coach Reinhard Fabisch said he was struck by a rock and had a wound stitched at the stadium. Egyptian officials said fans hurled oranges, not rocks.
FIFA ordered the match replayed in neutral France. The scoreless draw ended Egypt’s qualifying hopes.
This time, FIFA braced for trouble. It wrote to football authorities in both Egypt and Algeria asking for fair play.
One might think that Egyptian police could have protected a few football players had they put their mind to it. Yet Gaillaud, the French doctor, says he was struck by how little security there was for their bus to the hotel. He recalls just one police van, carrying four or five officers, traveling with them.
French journalist Guillaume Pivot, who was following behind in a car, says the bus had police motorcycle outriders, too.
“It was the sort of convoy that you get for a League One match in France. It was completely ill-adapted to the situation,” he says.
Lemmouchia needed three stitches for his cut scalp; strips and a bandage were used to close a cut on the left eyebrow of defender Rafik Halliche; a couple of other players suffered minor cuts, says the doctor.
Less visible was the shock.
The first missile, for example, narrowly missed forward Karim Matmour.
“He felt the stone whizz past his head,” says Gaillaud. “He was as white as a sheet.”
Matmour lasted just half the match and was substituted.
“They were physically capable of playing but were they mentally is a whole other question,” says the doctor. “I doubt that they were at 100 percent of their capacities and, with that in mind, I think things were skewed.”
“The match shouldn’t have gone ahead.”
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press.