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African view: Not just a game

Algerian fans react on the Champs Elysees, in Paris, on Wednesday 18 Nov 2009 after Algeria defeated Egypt in a World Cup 2010 qualifying play-off in Khartoum

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, Zimbabwean filmmaker and journalist Farai Sevenzo asks whether football has not grown too big for its boots.

I don't know about you but my last two weeks have been dominated by sports.

Watching it not playing it, because I haven't become a fitness fanatic nor am I addicted to the gym and I remain resolutely lazy when it comes to kicking up a sweat unless it is for pleasure.

But with 198 days and counting down to the Football World Cup in South Africa, the season of inexplicable nationalism and outrageous passion is upon us.

The border between soccer and politics is vague. There is a long list of governments that have fallen or been overthrown after the defeat of the national team
Ryzard Kapuscinski

There I was thinking what would become of this tension between Algeria and Egypt - since when could a game of football be influenced by stone-throwing spectators, rioting in Cairo and Algiers, and boiling tempers over the right to go to South Africa?

How would it all end?

Then Fifa, in all its dubious wisdom, decided to hold the game to Khartoum and the presence of some 15,000 Sudanese troops on the streets and around the stadium ensured the two teams and their supporters would not draw blood.

Not just a game

And all this in 2009.

Forty years ago in June 1969 El Salvador and Honduras faced each other for a place in the 1970 World Cup.

Sudanese policemen stand guard in front of Algerian fans ahead of the 2010 World Cup qualification play-off between Egypt and Algeria in Khartoum
Tension between Algeria and Egypt meant the play-off venue was changed

Then, as in now, stones were thrown, the visiting team was deprived of sleep and underlying hatreds that had festered for decades exploded and after 100 hours of fighting 6,000 were dead, 12,000 were injured and 50,000 displaced in both countries - in what was dubbed The Soccer War.

We are lucky that this new sensitive humane 21st Century did not give us such a spectacle where Algeria and Egypt where concerned, but the noises being made in embassies from Khartoum to Algiers and Cairo should remind us that football is not just a game.

Slights are being perceived and rent-a-mob crowds have been seen burning shops and throwing rocks in the dead of night.

War of words

Writing on the 1969 fighting sparked by a football game, The late Africa Watcher and prominent Polish reporter Ryzard Kapuscinski noted in his seminal book, entitled The Soccer War:

"In Latin America," he said, "the border between soccer and politics is vague. There is a long list of governments that have fallen or been overthrown after the defeat of the national team.

TV grab shows French forward Thierry Henry eyes the ball during the World Cup 2010 qualifying football match France vs Republic of Ireland on 18 November 2009
What would the hand-chopping al-Shabab lawmakers have done to Thierry Henry?

"Players on the losing team are denounced in the press as traitors. When Brazil won the World Cup in Mexico, an exiled Brazilian colleague was heartbroken: 'The military right wing,' he said, 'can be assured of at least five more years of peaceful rule.'"

And the more I listened to the war of words from the North Africans the easier it was to see how easily people will use the beautiful game for unknown agendas - "If someone insults my dignity," said a prominent Egyptian, "I will strike him on the head."

Egypt, said a victorious Algerian player, should just shut up.

Meanwhile, the crowds surge here and there in support of their collective dignity by burning and stoning while the politicians and esteemed leaders, many of whom have not seen the inside of a gym nor kicked a ball in over four decades, will spur them on and attempt to claim the people's game as an extension of patriotic zeal.

Somewhere in Somalia?

So if both sides are not careful, fate may make them meet again in the Africa Cup of Nations come January in Angola.

But there is a way Fifa can help Africa and Africa's footballing feuds.

Al-Shabab Islamist fighters sit on a truck while patrolling Mogadishu
Is football the answer to bring an end to Somalia's chaos?

What if, instead of staging a replay in Sudan's Khartoum, Fifa had decreed that the deciding match between these two fierce rivals should be played somewhere in Somalia?

Such a move would have been genius - in one stroke the feuding teams would have been embarrassed into some kind of truce.

Playing their deciding game in a land wracked by chaos, they would surely have been forced to remember decorum.

And for the Somalis, the arrival of Africa's new age superstars would have had warring factions and peacekeepers laying down their arms for 90 minutes of pure football escapism - and peace may well have broken out all over the troubled horn.

Unifying powers

And yes, even the pirates (not the Orlando Pirates I hasten to add for my South African friends), who between them have committed more than 160 acts of piracy since January 2009, hijacked over 34 vessels and taken more than 450 people hostage - may well have docked their speedboats and watched the game on their imported flat screen televisions.

Algerian fans celebrate on 18 November 2009 in the Barbes-Rochechouart neighbourhood of Paris, after the victory of Algeria over Egypt during the World Cup 2010 qualifying football match
Can you imagine a day when scenes like this are seen in Somalia?

And instead of fighting over millions of dollars in ransom money, the Somali pirates may well have taken to betting their huge ill-gotten resources on who would win a World Cup qualifier being staged on their soil.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, whose own country was beaten to South Africa's World Cup by Slovenia, called for a new international tribunal to be set up to try suspected pirates.

"We could do as in the Middle Ages, hang them, but that would not fit with our vision of humanity," he said patronisingly.

But the Middle Ages did not have Pele, or Roger Milla or Didier Drogba or Michael Essien or the World Cup.

Yes, chaos is no reason to exclude a nation from the unifying powers of football.

Somalia as a destination for World Cup qualifiers could catch on so fast that even Ireland would be happy to face France in Mogadishu for that hotly debated and wished for replay.

But then again, what would the hand-chopping al-Shabab lawmakers have done to Thierry Henry?

Perhaps this idea needs fine-tuning, meanwhile, South Africa 2010 cannot come around soon enough.


Thanks for your comments. Please read a selection below:

Football will always be more than a game. I like to think it would bring peace to Somalia at least for the 90 mins + whatever you add for injury time.
Hawwa, United States

Since the days of Pele, football has certainly grown from being just an entertainment to something that encompasses many aspects of our life on this planet. It has been a source of hope to many who had none, the means of livelihood to those with the talent, and recently it has helped in uniting arch-enemies. However, we can still get more from soccer with more careful planning and implementation. How about a match between the political rivals of Zimbabwe?
Ola, Bronx, NY

I was watching that game not playing it, you were really disappointing when we heard the news on Focus on Africa. While we were watching the game within Khartoum Stadium but the game ended peacefully with no violation or stoning between the two teams. the Mediator's always acting and misleading the people to increase the anger for the losing the game. I was thinking what would become of this tension between Algeria and Egypt - since when could a game of football be influenced by stone-throwing spectators, rioting in Cairo and Algiers, and boiling tempers over the right to go to South Africa. So if both sides are not careful, fate may make them meet again in the Africa Cup of Nations come January in Angola. Maybe around quarter final.
Deng Changath, Abyei, Sudan

all these talking of Algerian having attacked Egyptian fans is all rubbish. this attacking was started by Egyptians in Cairo in the first game that ended squared before the deciding game was move to my Country(Sudan), i would say that in Sudan, Algerian fans were trying to defend themselves and the fact remain that Sudan was no man's land for both Egypt and Algeria period.

as for Farai's idea of moving any game of this kind to Somalia, it would have been the best idea ever thought of in sporting world, we all know how important it is, we saw it when Brazil went to play against Haiti for peace in 2005, a game that brazil won 7-0 if i can recall but the score line didn't matter but rather the unity it brought to hostile groups from the same country. it would be a great move for Somali insurgence to realize what they are denying their people and the pirates would see that there is more to life that hijacking ship in the ocean waters.

great article Farai, you have always been my icon in sport news since when i was in 6th grade. thumb up. [I think Peter is referring to Farayi Mungazi.]
peter malath, Seattle, Washington

These countries and fans may as well learn from Nigeria, who lost the Under 17 World cup on their own soil, when the referee disallowed a clear goal scored by Nigeria that would have equalized the match with Switzerland. No, stones were thrown or fans molested or any demonstration in front of Swiss embassy, or call for replay or the head of the ref. This is how countries and fans should behave after a football game. Count one for Nigeria.
lennox anunwah, palos verdes, California, USA

Just to inform Mr Tim Newsome, that those "Pictures of the Algerian fans holding up Knives in Sudan" Were actually taken a long time a go when Algeria was in a war with itself (I know, nobody is perfect) I precise that they (Pictures) were taken in El Harrash, Algiers, Algeria years ago...

So I do not know how and why Mr Newsome added "and Attacking Egyptian fans in Sudan".

We know they (Egyptians) have famous special effects artists, but going this far to incriminate Algeria, SAD! However, this time their (Trucage) does not work. I suggest they do like the Irish and, "just get over it".

Thank you for reading.
The obesevateur, London

Tim, the pictures with the knives were taken in Algiers and not in Khartoum by some local hooligans. Otherwise how do you think that you would get on a plane carrying knives. If anybody should be disqualified is the Egyptian federation for making violence part of their play strategy. Btw the game in Algeria was violence free.
Amin, Algiers, Algeria

very good article, i too wish football could bring peace to the horn (somalia).
aabdi, london

Good article. you forgot to mention Ghana vs Ivory Coast in 1993 when Asante Kotoko beat Asec Abidjan in the semi finals of the African club competition and this set off blood letting against Ghanaians in Abidjan!!!!
Anonymous

you seem to have left out of your story , the Pictures of the Algerian fans holding up Knives in Sudan and Attacking Egyptian fans, which in my opinion I think Algeria should be disqualified for these incidents as opposed to rewarding them.
Tim Newsome, USA



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