By Rob Anderson
A group of high school students was walking home along Bay Ridge Avenue this afternoon wearing sweatpants and shirts in the same shade of red, the color of Egypt’s national soccer team. Today was Egypt’s big matchup against Algeria, and the winner, they all knew, would advance to the qualifying round of the 2010 World Cup.
As they reached the corner of Bay Ridge and Ovington, a crowd flooded out of a café across the road. The men were belting out the song happy soccer fans sing the world over, even if they aren’t Spanish-speakers: “Olé, olé, olé, olé.” Some of the men ran down the sidewalk, flags unfurling behind them. Others rolled in the middle of the road, or knelt down and kissed the concrete.
No one shouted out the score or mentioned which team had won, but the high schoolers knew. The happy crowd was wearing white and green, not red like they were.
“Oh shit,” one said in disbelief. “We lost.”
Somewhere at the top of the list of soccer’s blood curdling, red-face inducing, vein popping feuds sits the rivalry between Egypt and Algeria, the Pharaohs and the Desert Foxes.
The bad blood began over 20 years ago, when Egypt and Algeria faced off in a match similar to today’s—one that would determine which team would move onto the next year’s World Cup and which would return home, humiliated. Egypt topped Algeria 1-0 that day, but that’s not really when the rivalry began in earnest. After all, soccer games are won and lost all the time.
What made this match different, what set it apart from a mere contest, was what happened after the game in a Cairo hotel. That’s where Interpol arrested Algerian soccer player Lakhdar Belloumi after a fight broke out and an Egyptian fan, a doctor, was stabbed in the face with a broken bottle. He lost an eye.
Belloumi claimed innocence, and his countrymen believed him. Unsurprisingly, the Egyptians were less willing to take Belloumi at his word. Ever since, matches between the two countries have been watched closely, the tension barely simmering below the surface.
Things boiled over this week, starting even before the two teams first met on the pitch this Saturday. Egyptian fans allegedly attacked the Algerian team by hurling rocks at the windows of their bus as they drove into Cairo. According to some news reports, three of the team members arrived at their hotel covered in blood.
Egypt won that game 2-0, which is why the teams faced each other again today to finally decide who would make it to the World Cup next year. The game was billed as “a match of hate,” and this time they met on what both teams considered neutral territory: Sudan.
Only within the context of a bitter rivalry such as this could Khartoum—the home of some of the world’s most notorious genocidaires—ever be considered safe ground.
It comes as no surprise that New York’s North African soccer fans filled cafes in Bay Ridge this afternoon to watch the match. The rival crowds followed the game from separate establishments, with just one block between them. By 2 in the afternoon, about 80 Egyptian fans had gathered in the Meena House Café. From the back of the room, it almost looked as if they were engaged in some sort of religious ceremony. The lights were off, and you could make out only the back of men’s heads through the sweet smelling haze of hookah pipes. No one spoke, their eyes fixed on the flat screen TV at the front of the room.
The Algerians were just down the block, but as soon as the game was over, the crowds met at the corner of Bay Ridge and Fifth Avenues. The Egyptians took the south side of the street, the Algerians the north. Each began chanting in Arabic and English.
“Where were you when Egypt won?” one Egyptian fan shouted, referring back to the 1989 match that started the rivalry in the first place.
“Kiss my Algerian ass,” a supporter from the other side shouted back.
As expected, the Algerian side was the more cheerful of the two. Men wrapped in Algerian flags jumped around and sat on each others’ shoulders. They sang and chanted, “One, two, three, viva L’Algerie.”
“It is like a big, big holiday for all Algerians today,” said Mo Chittah, who was wearing an Algerian jersey. “We make the Egyptians cry today.”
The Egyptian side was chanting, too, but they were also banging their hands against metal grates, which gave their side a more ominous feeling. “Go home,” some yelled to the Algerians across the street.
Ibrahim Mansour watched the crowds from inside the 5th Ave Kings grocery store, where he has been a butcher for ten years. He said this was the second time the groups had gathered this week. The first was Saturday, after Egypt forced Algeria into the final matchup. But before this week, Mansour said, he had never seen anything like this in Bay Ridge.
Gus Niamonitis agreed. He works at a donut shop on the same corner, and witnessed both rallies. He said today’s was the same size as last weekend’s. The only difference was that today the roles were reversed. “Last time the Egyptians were happy,” he said. “Now the Algerians are getting back at them.”
The New York Police Department had expected confrontation, and within minutes of the match ending around 40 officers separated the crowds on opposite sides of the streets.
After about 45 minutes, a young man on the Egyptian side who looked to be in his twenties hurled two eggs at the Algerian fans. The police didn’t see him, but they did notice the flying eggs, so they moved in to break up the crowds. “Ok, time to go home,” one officer said as he shoved his way through the Egyptian fans. “You’ll get another chance in four years.”
After the groups broke up, smaller cliques formed. Nora Silme taped an Algerian flag to the hood of his friend’s gray Ford Mustang, and they drove up and down Bay Ridge Avenue blasting music and waving out the windows.
The only people who remained at Bay Ridge and Fifth were some young Egyptians. “We have pride for our country,” said 17-year old Jenna Eldib. Although she was born in America, she said, she considers Egypt her home.
Perhaps because of this, or because she wasn’t alive when the rivalry between Algeria and Egypt first began, she was the only one who brushed off the countries’ 20-year-old feud. “No one was talking about that stuff today,” she said. “It was just this one game. Today was just about today. “
Just then, some Algerians were gathering across the street. They hugged each other and waved at cars driving by. Unlike the group of Egyptians, they were older. One was missing his front teeth. And you didn’t have to ask them. It was clear that today was certainly not just about today.