KHARTOUM, (AFP) — Thousands of Algerian and Egyptian fans descended Tuesday into Khartoum for a decisive World Cup qualifier between the two Arab rivals as Sudanese police went on high alert after weekend unrest.
Arriving en masse at Khartoum airport, the Algerian football supporters turned the arrivals lounge into a sea of green and white.
“I am married with two children. I left my children, my wife, my home. I left everything and I came here,” said a fan named Adel, decked out in a conical hat, pants and shirt in Algeria’s colours.
A journalist who also made the trip by plane from Algiers, Ifticen Ahmed, said there was a mad rush to get flights and tickets for the match.
“There are fans who came with absolutely nothing,” he said. “They were in the street when they heard the news that there were flights. They headed to the airport to come to Sudan.”
Algerian authorities have mobilised planes and offered discounted tickets for “Desert Fox” fans to come and watch Wednesday’s match against the “Pharaohs” in Omdurman, the twin city of Khartoum on the Nile.
“We expect 48 aircraft from Algeria and 18 from Egypt,” said Khartoum state governor Abdelrahman al-Khidr, noting about 2,000 Egyptians were also expected to take buses, while thousands already lived and worked in Khartoum.
Khartoum has not seen a such football pilgrimage since hosting the African Nations Cup in 1970, and is unaccustomed to major international events.
Hotels in the Sudanese capital were fully booked on Tuesday, forcing local authorities to set up two separate sites for each camp of supporters, several kilometres (miles) apart.
Authorities are trying to separate the fans to avoid violence that has erupted over the race between the bitter North African rivals for a place at World Cup 2010, as witnessed in Algeria, Egypt and France in recent days.
World football governing body FIFA hastily arranged the play-off in neutral territory after Egypt’s 2-0 home win over Algeria on Saturday left the teams deadlocked at the top of their World Cup qualifying group.
But the match was preceded by violence, including a stonethrowing attack by Egyptian supporters on the Algerian team bus when it arrived in Cairo on Thursday, injuring several players and staff.
That prompted Algeria’s foreign ministry to summon the Egyptian ambassador in Algiers in order to express “deep concern.”
Away fans were also hurt after Saturday’s match, leading to revenge attacks by Algerians on Egyptian companies based in Algiers on Monday.
“They beat our wives and our guys in Egypt… we are standing ready to kick their behinds if they do something to us,” said Shakib, an Algerian supporter who came from Abu Dhabi.
“We don’t want to fight, we want a clean game, but if they come after us we will defend the flag.”
Around 15,000 police are on standby in case things boil over before, during and after the game, said Khartoum state governor Abderrahman al-Khidr.
Omdurman’s Al-Merreikh stadium seats 41,000, but the authorities have limited the number of tickets for the match to 35,000 spectators for safety reasons.
About 9,000 seats have been reserved for the rival fans at opposite ends of the stadium.
“The game has become so enormous… Honestly, it will degenerate if they (the supporters of both teams) meet in the stadium or on the street,” the journalist Ahmed warned.
The North African rivals have a history of bad blood, with riots breaking out after Egypt defeated Algeria in a 1989 match in Cairo.
Algeria player Lakhdar Belloumi was tried in absentia and sentenced to prison in Egypt for allegedly seriously injuring the Egyptian team doctor with a bottle after that game.
Egypt last qualified for the World Cup in 1990, and Algeria in 1986.