Fierce rivalries set to dominate semi-finals


Many spectators attending Sunday’s quarter-final in Luanda were surprised to be handed condoms upon entry – with the donors perhaps mindful

of how an earlier victory had prompted some Angolans to parade naked through the streets.

Either way, the message seemed to be – “Make love, not war” – which, even though the Ghanaians punctured their hosts’ happy bubble, was timely.

For last night, Egypt beat Cameroon 3-1 to set up a repeat of their intense World Cup play-off against bitter foes Algeria, a game that sparked outbreaks of violence and enormous tensions across the Arab world.

Hours later, Nigeria also ensured they would face their arch-rivals, Ghana, when scraping through on penalties against a Zambian side playing to maximum capacity under coach Herve Renard.

Which means that two of Africa’s biggest rivalries dominate Thursday’s semis: an all-West African clash followed by the North African one. And there’s no doubt which will attract the most attention.

For November’s play-off between these fiercest of rivals forced the planet to sit up and take notice, especially after three Algerian players were hit by some of the hundreds of stones aimed at their bus upon arrival in Egypt for a decisive qualifier.

Fifa even confirmed the incident but – amazingly – forced Algeria to play, an unimaginable situation had the same thing happened to John Terry, Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney ahead of a make-or-break World Cup qualifier.

“Fifa told us we would forfeit the match if we didn’t play, so we had to,” says coach Rabah Saadane. “What I learnt from those matches was that football must stay within the confines of sport, for if it enters the realm of politics it becomes dangerous – very dangerous.”

This was patently clear for once the patched-up Algerians lost 2-0 in Cairo, the teams had to play-off to reach South Africa. And the ‘Desert Foxes’ took all in extraordinary circumstances in neutral Sudan, with 15,000 police in attendance and thousands of fans locked out.

In Benguela, Saadane’s men will meet an Egyptian side on the hottest streak in Nations Cup history – 17 games without defeat (which came, against, who else? Algeria!) – and with a midfielder setting his own records.

Ahmed Hassan did journalists a big favour when scoring against Cameroon yesterday, because his Africa-best caps tally, near the world record of 177 (blog editor – there has been some confusion about the world record but we are now going with 181, by Mohamed Al Deayea, after the Guinness World Records emailed in during one of our live text commentaries), had been unclear (even after the BBC had contacted Fifa). But as Hassan brandished a T-shirt with the number ‘170’ on it, all was (seemingly) put to rest.

This is the sides’ fourth clash in eight months – with Algeria winning two, Egypt one – and as the results show, the rivals are closer in quality than either might like to admit: especially Egyptian fans, whose team may be six-time African champions but still couldn’t qualify for Africa’s first World Cup.

While the on-field battle will captivate, so may the battle in the press box. Algerian journalists would make ‘those Scottish fans with typewriters’ seem almost neutral, shouting at the tops of their voices while flying Algerian flags (Egypt’s have also been in media areas).

In November, Algerian fans flew to Khartoum in their thousands as the country and diaspora – whipped up by their players’ treatment in Cairo – united behind the national flag. And at the time of writing, that appears to be happening again.

It’s debatable whether the Angolans will be there themselves, for their continued attendance is unclear following the Palancas Negras’ exit (one which was celebrated in Togo). No such worries about the Black Stars followers – 50 of whom have been holing up in the Ghana Embassy’s compound.

Fully understanding Angola’s extreme prices – six dollars for a can of coke, with 3-star hotel rooms costing well over US$400 per night – the Ambassador has kindly put up the fans (either sleeping in the building or in tents in the garden), who clatter and clang each morning as breakfast is made with the pots and pans at their disposal.

Ghana’s rivalry with Nigeria is often labelled Africa’s biggest, but this row seems more heated off the pitch than on it – and is, thankfully, a battle that comes with more humour and good-natured ribbing than the North African one.

Ironically, some Nigerians will have mixed emotions about reaching the semis because they had wanted a new coach. But making the last four means coach Shaibu Amodu will lead the Super Eagles at the World Cup, even if his stay of execution came from winning football’s form of Russian roulette.

Now, I’m writing this blog on the road to Benguela, which is hosting the Egypt v Algeria semi, and having left Luanda for the first time – and what a pleasure it is!

Driving anywhere in the Angolan capital is like to trying to get an interview with the Nigerians – very hard work – as it takes hours to get anywhere. By way of example, I left central Luanda last week some three hours before Angola played Algeria, time enough you may think to travel just over 10 miles but not so – as I missed kick-off despite finishing my journey on the back of a friendly fan’s moped.

For the locals, that traffic won’t be a problem any more – nor, for visiting journalists, will the sight of naked Angolan men nor, more probably, the blown-up condoms flying through Luanda’s stadium.

However, while travelling down, as one of our number tried to relieve himself in the bushes by the side of the road, the cries of our driver were frantic in the extreme – a reminder of Angola’s troubled past and how many still live in fear of the thousands of unexploded mines.