By Paul Gardner
As soon as I saw his name come up, I felt sorry for the guy. I'm referring to the selection of Koffi Codjia, from Benin, as referee for Thursday's African Nations Cup semifinal between Algeria and Egypt.
An utterly thankless task, a lose-lose situation if ever there was one. This was one of those rivalries where the much praised "passion" of the fans had boiled over and more or less guaranteed a game surrounded by what are often euphemistically called "incidents."
The two countries are old opponents, but there has been very recent bad blood (that is, I'm afraid, the correct word) between them in the World Cup qualifiers for South Africa. When Algeria traveled to Cairo in November its bus was stoned, and three players were injured. Those passionate Egyptian fans, of course.
Despite the attack, the game was played anyway (with the Algerian players hardly having time to recover from the trauma). Egypt's 2-0 win forced a playoff game, which was played at a neutral site, Sudan. A 1-0 win for Algeria in that game sent them to South Africa, and left the Egyptians empty handed.
But the passion needed to vent itself again, and there were more incidents in both Algeria -- where Egyptian businesses were attacked -- and in Cairo. There was even a charming contribution from Alaa Mubarak, the son of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. On television he accused Algerians of insulting Egyptian dignity, and when that happens, he announced, "I will punch your head."
So when the African Nations Cup, being played in Angola, managed to arrange itself to produce yet another meeting between the two sides, apprehension was already in the air. This was hardly the match the organizers had been waiting for. The Egyptian players, though, saw it differently. A chance for revenge, maybe. There were appeals for calm from the foreign ministers of both countries (yes, we're still talking about a soccer game, not the buildup to a war), plus pompous statements from various political bigwigs -- "The match should reflect the historical and fraternal relations between the peoples of the two countries," was how Hisham Youssef from the Arab League saw matters.
Right. And this is what we got from Egyptian striker Mohamed Zidan: "It will be a matter of life and death ... for both sides it will be like a war."
The ghost of good old Bill Shankly and his famous dictum that "soccer is much more important than a matter of life and death" haunts the sport yet again. The Angolan authorities hastened to let everyone know that all would be well and we were reassured with the phrase that has become so familiar at soccer events over the past two decades, "enhanced security measures."
One thing should be emphasized. In last November's crucial games, the incidents had all been among the fans. On the field, between the players, things were competitive but under control.
Not this time. By the end of the game, Algeria had seen three of its players red-carded for violent play. Final score: Egypt 4 Algeria 0. Revenge indeed. And of course, exactly as one had feared, most of the criticism from the losing side was heaped on the referee, the hapless Koffi Codjia. Algerian coach Rabah Saadane was quite certain that "the referee decided the outcome. There was a plan against us when he gave our best defender a red card for what was not a penalty."
What the African soccer confederation website had optimistically billed as the SemiFinal of Reconciliation disintegrated into a nasty tangle of player violence, red cards and accusations of conspiracy.
You can forget about Shankly's inflammatory comment -- it is the calm, unemotional logic of George Orwell that applies here. Characterizing sport as "an unfailing cause of ill-will" he felt that if it has any effect at all on international relations "it can only be to make them slightly worse than before."