Sudan’s capital is bracing for Wednesday’s playoff between Egypt and Algeria for a place at the 2010 World Cup – a contest that has historically turned into an often bloody grudge match between two long time rivals.
For the Algerians, it’s a match that shouldn’t even be happening as they were the clear leaders in Group C and it was only a last minute Egyptian goal in Saturday’s game in Cairo that gave Egypt a 2-0 win, forcing a playoff at a neutral venue.
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The stakes are high for both teams as it has been decades – 1990 for Egypt, 1986 for Algeria – since either made it to a World Cup.
Despite being a six time winner of the Africa’s Cup, including the last contest, Egypt has had difficulty qualifying in its African division.
Off the pitch, the rivalry has turned even more bitter with fans battling each other in both Cairo and Algiers. At least 32 people were injured following Saturday’s game and the next day Egyptian businesses were ransacked in Algeria.
The Egypt’s Foreign Ministry went so far as to summon the Algerian ambassador to seek assurances that Egyptians in Algeria would be protected.
Sudan has announced a security plan to deal with the influx of fans now pouring into the country, including housing the Egyptians and Algerians in separate parts of the city, miles apart, and putting 15,000 riot police on the street.
Both countries have increased the number of flights to Sudan, with some wealthy businessmen chartering private planes to carry fans to the match.
The game will take place in Omdurman’s Mereikh stadium, with Egyptian fans sitting on the south side while Algerians fans will be on the north – with Sudanese fans and lots of security between them.
Egyptian airport officials say similar measures are in place in Cairo as Algerian fans who came for Saturday’s game are being ferried down south under tight security with strict instructions that they not be harassed.
When Algeria’s team arrived in Cairo last week, they were greeted by a stone throwing mob that smashed the windows of their bus and injured three players.
Algeria’s coach, Rabah Saadane, later told the Algerian magazine al-Hadaf that his team’s 2-0 loss was due to the injuries sustained by his two defenders in the bus attack.
The two men appeared on the pitch with head bandages.
Bad blood between the two teams stretches back to 1989, when the two teams faced off in a similar final qualifier, and Egypt won, advancing to the 1990 World Cup in Italy.
Though ostensibly a neutral venue, Khartoum’s inhabitants have been swept up by football fever, with most apparently supporting Algeria due to their own long standing sporting rivalry with Egypt.
Additional reporting by AP Writer Paul Schemm in Cairo.