Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Algeria celebrates victory over Egypt

This article was first published in When Saturday Comes November 19, 2009

They think they've won it already
I have to admit that I was scared for ten or so minutes after the final whistle blew here in Oran, Algeria last night. I watched Les Verts' World Cup play-off game with Egypt in a cafe in darkened streets of a city that I don't know. Anthar Yahia's 40th minute goal, a Van Basten-esque angled volley, unleashed the country's wildest celebrations since July 1962 – the month Algeria secured its bloody independence from France. Chairs flew over the road, aerosal sprays flashed into the sky, cars vroomed down the streets backwards and sideways, kids slalomed between klaxoning motorbikes and I had to duck once or twice to avoid the fireworks thrown like confetti.

More than 12 hours after the game ended, I've had to close my hotel window to keep out the noise of honking cars on the street 13 floors below. Even the barbus – the Islamic fundamentalists who for ten years brought the country to its knees – are dancing in the streets.

On the streets of Algiers
It is impossible for a European to imagine the rivalry that exists between the Fennecs and the Pharaohs. In Algiers, the offices of Air Egypt were burnt down two days ago. As the final qualifying group match drew to a close last Saturday, with Algeria minutes away from automatic qualification for South Africa, Algerian television's John Motson could restrain himself no longer. “Win it boys, win it for our million martyrs, show Egypt that Algeria never retreats," a barbed allusion to the fact that Algeria won their war against France but Egypt lost theirs against Israel.

After last weekend's two-nil defeat, Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika commandeered half of Air Algérie's fleet to convey supporters to neutral Khartoum for yesterday's play-off match – a move that nearly backfired when disappointed fans ransacked Algiers airport on learning there were not enough planes to go around. Such disappointment is a distant memory this morning as Algeria unites in ear-splitting harmony. Chanting supporters, young and old (including a fair helping of women) are once more bringing the streets, and the entire transport network, to a halt. Want a taxi, train or plane? Ask again in a couple of days.

Today's mass-selling Le Soir d'Algérie, normally a French-language newspaper, is headlined with a single word in Arabic: Dernaha (We've done it!) and inside we learn that the mountains, wadis, villages and dunes of the Algerian Sahara are emblazoned with a familiar-sounding slogan: "Impossible n'est pas algérien." Both on the streets and in the media everyone is hoping, everyone is – ironically – praying that football fever will hammer the final nail in the coffin of fundamentalism.

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