Cairo: Emotions are running high on the eve of crucial World Cup qualifier in Cairo even as World football governing body FIFA warned Egypt to step up security after alleged stonethrowing fans injured three Algerian players.
FIFA said it would later announce what action if any it was taking against the Egyptian football federation after considering a detailed report on the incident from its representatives in Cairo.
In 1989, a similar game between the two Arab countries plunged into violent rioting.
However, Egyptian security agencies denied claims by the Algerian team that they had been attacked by Egyptian fans while they were on way from the Cairo airport to a hotel. "Members of the Algerian team got angry when they saw Egyptian fans waving the national flag on way to the hotel," Egypt's official TV quoted the driver of the bus as saying. "They [the team] started to make offensive gestures, used hammers, originally meant for emergencies, and smashed the bus windows," he alleged.
More than 2,000 Algerians have arrived in Cairo over the two past years to support their squad.
On Thursday night, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak visited the national team during a training session. "President Mubarak urged the team to make the dream (of playing in the 2010 World Cup) come true," official television said. Egypt last appeared in the World Cup in 1990.
FM Stars, a popular Egyptian private radio, has launched the "Let's Pray for Win" campaign, which urges people to pray five minutes before the match scheduled to start at 7.30pm. "The aim of the campaign is to promote clean and calm support for the Egyptian team, away from any violence or rioting," said Ahmed Shalan, the media official of FM Stars. The campaign is echoed in the state-run and independent newspapers, which carried Friday fervent pleas for their readers "to pray to God for win".
Meanwhile, security around and inside Cairo Stadium has been beefed up. About 60 electronic gates and surveillance cameras have been set up at the 64,000-seat stadium to detect banned substances such as fireworks, sharp tools, inflammable materials and even water bottles.
The pre-match atmosphere in Egypt had already surged to feverish heights.
Around 70,000 Egyptians are expected to pack the stadium. Around 2,000 tickets have been allocated to Algerian fans.
Algeria can afford to lose the game by a one-goal margin and still qualify for the World Cup. A two-goal defeat would force a decider in Khartoum on November 18.
Hussam Fat'hi, a commerce student, elbowed his way into a chaotic line outside a ticket outlet in Nasr City in east northern Cairo early on Thursday to buy a ticket to attend a make-or-break World Cup qualifier on Saturday.
"Though I am not a hard-core football fan, I endured all this trouble in order to attend the game at Cairo stadium and see the Algerians humiliated in front of the whole world after all these insults they have hurled at Egypt," said Fat'hi. He displayed a copy of the front-page of the Algerian newspaper Al Khbar, headlined "November 14 will be a naksa for 80 million Egyptians."
Naksa, setback, is the termed used by the Egyptians to describe their traumatising military defeat in 1967 by Israel. "The Algerians forget that Egypt avenged this naksa and defeated Israel in 1973, thereby vindicating the dignity of all Arabs," added Fat'hi.
No holds barred
He is one of millions of Egyptians who have been engaged in a no-holds-barred spat with the Algerians over the Saturday game, which has raised worries that the two North African countries may be heading for a crisis. Over recent weeks, fans and media in both countries have been locked in a war of nerves, which has spilled over the social networking websites Facebook and Twitter.
A music video by an Algerian singer fires barbs at the Egyptians, including the Shaikh of Al Azhar, the nation's top Sunni Muslim cleric, showing him having a controversial handshake with Israeli President Shimon Peres last year. The same video makes fun of another Egyptian cleric, who passed a fatwa permitting Egyptian footballers to eat during Ramadan for an away World Cup qualifier with Rwanda last October. "How can this team qualify to the World Cup after committing this sin?" asked the singer in the video circulating on the web.
Another video on the video-sharing site YouTube shows young Egyptians setting an Algerian flag on fire.
The Egyptians call their national squad the team of prostrating worshippers, for their habit of kneeling after scoring. The mounting tensions have raised official worries in both Arab countries that today's encounter will degenerate into rioting as happened 20 years ago during a World Cup qualifier between them in Cairo.
Appealing for calm, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abul Gheit said on Thursday that the result of the game should not affect the "good and friendly ties" between the two countries.
President Hosni Mubarak and his Algerian counterpart Abdul Aziz Boutefliqa are expected to attend the match amid tight security.