Sports usually bring people together. In 1971, China invited American table-tennis players to play a courtesy game with the Chinese. The game served to break the ice between the two countries, and the event went down in history as “pig-pong diplomacy”.
Only two years earlier, however, a war took place between Salvador and Honduras in the wake of a football game. In the world cup finals, Honduras won a match played on its home turf, but Salvadorans claimed their fans had been beaten by Hondurans. The following week, Salvador won and demonstrations erupted when it was circulated that Salvadorans had raped Honduran women. The president of Honduras ordered the deportation of 300,000 Salvadoran farmers working in Honduran fields. A hideous war was initiated and thousands lost their lives.
Egyptians under attack
The climate of enmity engulfing Egypt and Algeria as their teams played last week to qualify for the World Cup final was reminiscent of the Honduras/Salvador predicament. The violence in Cairo and Algiers—and in other places in the world with large communities of Algerians, such as Paris and Marseilles—carried an ominous message.
It all started with mutual hostilities hurled by the media in both countries against each other. When the Algerian players arrived to Cairo for the World Cup qualifier against Egypt they claimed stone-throwing home fans attacked their team bus.
False news were circulated in the Algerian media that Algerian fans had been killed, and the Egyptian community in Algeria came under attack. Egypt Air’s office in Algiers was seriously damaged and had to close in fear for the staff’s safety. The Egyptian-owned Orascom Telecom and Arab Contractors company branches in Algeria were assaulted and ransacked.
Orascom executive chief Naguib Sawaris said that Orascom suffered at least five million dollars in damage. The staff had to be moved to safer quarters but Orascom was refused permission to evacuate its staff.
Egypt summoned the Algerian ambassador in Cairo to complain and then recalled its own envoy from Algiers for consultations. It also announced it was suspending its membership of the Union of North African Football Federations, complaining that Algerian fans had thrown stones at its fans in Khartoum where the playoff match—which Egypt lost 1-0—took place.
Relations between the two countries have been seriously marred by football fanaticism.
At the end, it is obvious that ties between the Egyptians and Algerians have suffered a huge crack. The violence has left deep scars that will take a long time to heal. The sincere efforts of leaders and the media on both sides are required to calm things down and place matters in proper perspective.
Neither ‘political football’ nor ‘football politics’ can be in the interest of either countries.