Football wars

It is everywhere you go. This excitement, this hopeful longing, this joy surging in an outpouring of national pride. It is there in the flags hanging from almost every available balcony or the cars painted with the national colours.
It is there in the questions I get asked almost daily now: “Do you think we will win the World Cup?” I just nod and smile. Hope does not kill.

It all seemed too good to be true. The Algerian national team just kept winning and winning all their matches. They might never know it, but each win cost me. When Zambia was beaten in September, people would shout at me in the street: “Zambia! You are from Zambia, no?” My protestation that I was Zimbabwean fell on deaf ears. “Zambia and Zimbabwe, they are just the same.” I would smile to myself. Try telling that to a Zambian. It was the same cycle all over again when Rwanda was defeated by Les Verts, as the national team is affectionately known. Now I was Rwandan—this time I knew better than to argue.

The Algerians are passionate about football. To the common man, rugby and cricket might as well not exist. It is all about Pelé‘s beautiful game here and emotions tend to run high whenever there is an encounter on the pitch. Police beef up their already strong presence and, as a foreigner, I know better than to go outside unless I absolutely have to. The all-male university residence I live in has a special projector reserved just for these occasions and as each match ended in victory my residence erupted into all-night celebrations. The dream appeared that much closer, that much more real.

But life is never a fairytale and reality chooses the most inconvenient times to intrude. This time it burst in rudely when photos of three Algerian players with blood streaming down their faces were shown in every newspaper in the country. They had been attacked with stones as their bus left the airport in Cairo ahead of a match that should have sent either Egypt or Algeria to South Africa. All I could be grateful for at that moment was that I was not Egyptian. For the next few days it was the talk of the country and the Egyptians were vilified everywhere. But all the conversations ended with hopeful affirmations: Les Verts would win.

They lost.

I can hardly explain it. If by simple willpower alone the Algerians could have wiped Egypt off the world map, we’d no longer be speaking of the pyramids. And as for the Egyptians, although they had won two goals to nil, it was not enough for them to qualify. The two teams were tied on group points and goals scored and were forced to meet in a playoff, but the whole of Algeria felt as though they had been robbed of a victory that should have been theirs outright. Then again, life sometimes has fairytale endings. Algeria won the playoff, one goal to nil, a few days later in Sudan.

I was there when Algeria exploded and for once it wasn’t a bomb that ripped through this nation but pure, unadulterated joy. “One, two, three! Vive l’Algérie!” I have never seen anything like it before. Men cried and hugged one another in the streets, cars hooted throughout the night and youths danced on the rooftops of moving buses, while the traffic police hardly batted an eyelid. There were spontaneous parties in the streets during the night and, during the day, it seemed every car drove with its hazards flashing and its horn blaring.

But, as with so many things in this country, emotions ran a little too high. The burnt-out remains of Air Egypt’s offices are a chilling testament, as are the ransacked offices of Djezzy Orascom, a cellular operator owned by an Egyptian company. It seems the Egyptian embassy survived only because the police got there first. Most of my friends seem to be entirely satisfied with this turn of events, but there are a few who agree with me—that loving the game does not have to go this far. But with qualification in the bag, what is past is past as far as most people are concerned.

Now it seems everything has almost gone back to normal. Except, of course, for the occasional headscarf in the colours of the national flag or the banners that still hang across streets, waiting in anticipation for Les Verts to step on to South African soil. The Egyptians have been forgotten, if not entirely forgiven—the Algerians can afford to be this benevolent; after all, their dream lives on.

Bongani Ncube is a Zimbabwean studying computer science in Algiers

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