African business, politics and lifestyle
Soccer match creates Arab diplomatic rift
In scenes more akin to a prelude to war than a soccer match, Algeria won Africa’s last place in next year’s World Cup finals in the Sudanese capital Khartoum on Wednesday.
With 15,000 extra security men manning the stadium and heavily armed riot police on virtually every street corner for Algeria’s 1-0 win over Egypt, there was little opportunity for major violence.
Fears of riots in Khartoum spread as some Algerian fans said they were out for revenge after Egyptians stoned their team bus, injuring three players at their previous encounter in Cairo. Twenty Algerians were injured in clashes after that match on Saturday, and the next day Egyptian businesses were ransacked in Algiers.
But the riots never happened and Sudanese police in the stadium were left slightly bewildered by ecstatic Algerian fans blowing them kisses and chanting pro-Sudanese slogans.
There had been only minor scuffles ahead of the match and afterwards a number of buses carrying Egyptian fans were stoned, windows broken and people cut by flying glass as they headed for the airport.
The massive Gad restaurant opposite the airport, draped in Egyptian flags, was invaded after the match by hungry Algerians who ransacked the fridges but attacked no one before Sudanese police threw them out, the manager said.
Khartoum’s major hospitals said they received no injuries or deaths from clashes between fans.
But Egyptian media reports described a very different atmosphere.
Some Egyptian journalists reported near hysterical scenes of their fans under siege by Algerian “militias”, being beaten or stabbed, with armed Algerians chasing Egyptians through the streets and even of deaths.
Khartoum police dismissed the reports. But after some Egyptian media said Sudan had failed to protect its citizens, diplomatic relations between all three countries plummeted.
On Thursday, Egypt recalled its ambassador in Algiers, angered by reports of attacks on Egyptians.
The diplomatic rift split into a chasm after Egyptian ally and match host Sudan summoned Cairo’s ambassador in Khartoum to express a “very strong protest” at Egyptian media reports it said were untrue.
One official said the media was using Sudan as a scapegoat to distract attention from Egypt’s defeat. Egypt had proposed Khartoum as a neutral venue for the decider.
Many fans and Sudanese said they were impressed if somewhat surprised at how organised Khartoum’s security operation was. Fans were bussed out of the stadium at different times and followed separate routes to the airport.
With all the ruckus it was easy to forget about the soccer. The game was rough and technically poor, said fans, but the match was always going to be about emotion rather than technique.
Algerians will now be queueing up for visas to South Africa in the hope that that embassy at least will remain open.