The International Writers Magazine: Soccer Madness
The Algeria-Egypt debacle: Soccer contention or media war?
Saleem Ayoub Quna
Sports and music are two major inventions that people from all over the world can use to communicate with each other, for good reason, without uttering words. Each has its own rules, rituals and tools. The smaller the world becomes, figuratively speaking, the more these two languages gain ground. Both inventions remain subject to ferocious competition and strict rulings. Sport and in particular football, is the most popular as well as controversial and consequently cause for dispute.
One simple reason is that the players have to demonstrate their talents simultaneously against rival players, before live, noisy and excited spectators. TV live satellite coverage also attracts many viewers around the globe. This coverage in turn creates another discrete backstage competition amongst local TV channels that vie for more commercials.
This is perhaps why FIFA (Federation International of Football Association) was founded in 1904 in Paris as the main international governing body of the regional, continental and especially the World Cup tournaments held at fixed intervals.
In music also, there are certain supervising bodies and associations that oversee a different kind of criteria of talent and performance. If music seeks to create inner peace and relaxation, football generates excitement, suspense and can evoke all kinds of ethnic, regional and nationalistic zeal. Therefore, FIFA authored a long list of rules and regulations to deal with the minutest details of any match when necessity arises. In 2007, FIFA, for example, ruled that no future international matches could be played at an altitude of over 2,500m (8200ft) above sea level where players from countries at lower altitudes cannot play due to the difference of the level of air pressure.
But occasionally disputes and rows between nations over the result of a certain football match erupts and lead to serious consequences including going to war. This happened in 1969 when Honduras and El-Salvador in South America, went into a 100 hour-war (four days) over the result of a football match between their national football teams. The death toll of this war stood at 4,000 people, military and civilians, on both sides. It took more than two decades to turn the page of that tragic chapter.
According to FIFA, Africa has five spots in the upcoming World Cup, plus the host country, South Africa. The last two contender African nations during the run up matches were Algeria and Egypt, who happen to be the only two Arab qualifier nations. Only one of the two will play at the World Cup. The other four African countries that have already made it to this international event are Cameroon, Nigeria, Cote d'Ivore and Ghana.
Pondering on the latest unusual reverberations of the last play-off match between Algeria and Egypt in Sudan on 18th November 2009, where Algeria snatched the winning ticket to the World Cup, scheduled first time on African soil next summer, one can confirm, and fortunately, there are no common borders between these two Arab nations. The row over the result of this match came as surprise for many and as time passed, reached unprecedented levels of tension in light of the mutually reciprocal and mounting accusations of intimidation, violence and endless claims of ill will, premeditation and provocation.
Prior to this play-off match, Egypt and Algeria played two prior matches: On 25th October 2009 in Algeria where the host won 3-2 and the second in Egypt on 7th November 2009 where the host won 2-0, a stand-off that warranted a third tie-break match. According to FIFA rules, any last decisive match must be played in a neutral country.
Algeria wanted to play in Tunisia but Egypt preferred Sudan. The draw by FIFA picked Sudan for what turned out to be a real confrontation. In preparation for this match, each country used all possible means and tools, materialistic and psychological, at their disposal to rally their own public opinion behind their national teams through a continuous and relentless campaign in their local private and public mediums. The campaign was so heated and intense that the average man in both Egypt and Algeria became completely convinced that his national team would win.
The planners of the media campaign on both sides seemed over-confident that their national team will win to the extent that no one dared to propose or even think of preparing for plan B in case of failure. It sounded like a walk in a minefield where you focus on your survival only. Consciously or unconsciously, and for reasons of attracting greater commercial ads, the media played on the nationalistic card, creating a monster avalanche of zeal falling victim to its own design and size. The minimum of common sense must leave some little room for failure, whether it's caused by human error or cheer bad luck. Hastiness and overconfidence nourished by a dire internal thirst for achievement in both camps to make it to the World Cup, went hand-in-hand to push the two countries into an unprecedented historical diplomatic and emotional debacle.
But why does football, labeled by some cynics as stupid, has such weight and importance in all countries around the world. Those say how can one spend 90 minutes watching 22 players run after a ball? It's much more than that in countries where people face different, sometimes difficult economic, social and political problems. The authorities in these countries are well aware of the important role of such a game on people's feelings and mood.
Sports in general, and football especially, is a good legitimate means to divert public attention, even temporarily. On the other hand, athletes in developed countries are professionals who chose to play, while in some third world countries athletes function as mere civil servants. Sports is one of the many state-run activities that can create good impression about any given country for the outside world especially when it is backed by public approval and support. It is also a public manifestation of national unity. Rallying public opinion behind a general even loose objective is also a useful signal versus the opposition.
As the showdown between Algeria and Egypt in Sudan came to an end, the Egyptian dream was dealt a surprisingly deadly blow. Algeria's cause for celebration came in double, regaining its spot to play in South Africa and it was a long-awaited dream, 23 years, under the command of the same 65-year-old coach Rabeh Sa'adan.
In the following hours and days after the dramatic match on 14th November, the lucky party justifiably continued celebrating the historical achievement, while the other camp due to the absence of plan B, sought to reinvest on the previously gathered public mob atmosphere to defuse the generated frustration and disappointment, while keeping an eye on national solidarity and unity.
One must also wonder would have the first party faired any better if it had lost that match? And did it have plan B in the first place? These are just sample questions whose answers will remain in mystery forever, thanks to the power of the media as it assumed the role of referee of human rights abuses instead of reporting facts as they happen in the field!
Saleem is a free-lance journalist and media specialist focusing on travel, cultural and social issues. He has already published two books in English:" My Neighborhood" a cultural guide to Jabal Lweibdeh in 2006, and" Downtown Amman; A Social Tapestry" in 2009. Contact the writer at:
b2beinitiatiev at yahoo.com
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