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Egypt, Algeria urinate on away goals rule November 17, 2009

Posted by Alex Tomchak Scott in African soccer.
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Sometime around the mid-1960s, presumably concerned by the possibility that people might enjoy themselves at soccer matches, the honchos and bigwigs at UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, had a catered (everything at UEFA is catered), occult-themed all-night orgy that produced the devil-spawn known as the away goals rule. Those who follow the sport have spent much of the subsequent 40-odd years watching what should be its most exciting games ruined by clubs sending out teams full of tortoises hiding in their shells in away legs. This weekend, Egypt, Algeria, and some wacky African rules provided us with a heartening reminder of the era before the rule existed.

The away goals rule, for those unfamiliar, dictates that, when two teams play a two-game, home-and-away tie and score an equal number of goals, the team that advances is the one that has scored more goals in the opposition’s stadium. I will grant that the rule kind of makes sense, since it’s probably harder to score if tens of thousands of people are baying for your blood than it is when they’re willing you to score.

But sensible or not, it sucks the enjoyment out of the game. It essentially means that the team that shows its fans a more uninteresting game goes through. It also robs fans of the thrill of replays, i.e., being able to see more games.

In Africa, though, the away goals rule is not in force. Egypt and Algeria played for a place in the World Cup on Saturday. Technically, they were also in a group with Rwanda and Zambia, but those teams performed so poorly that they were out of the running for a place at the World Cup by the time Saturday’s game in Cairo rolled around. In the game between the two in Blida, Algeria, the hosts won 3-1. On Saturday, Egypt won 2-0 to bring the teams level in the group standings and on goals scored against one another.

In Europe, it would have been enough to send Egypt through. But I noticed Egypt and Algeria are not in Europe. So instead, there will be a playoff, another leg to this gloriously exciting, blood-spattered rivalry. It’s a third course in a dinner that was only supposed to have two, and those have both been delectable, even if the only part I’ve seen is Emad Motaeb’s last-minute equalizer for Egypt, worth watching on Youtube for the incredulous Arabic commentary alone.

Of all the places to do it, this game will be played in Khartoum, Sudan, a spot nominated by Egypt and then drawn out of a cap (Algeria nominated Tunisia). Considering that we’re talking about the country which has spent most of the young century being criticized for appearing to encourage lawlessness (to put it lightly) within its borders, it will be interesting to see how the 15,000 police the Sudanese have called in will deal with the violent rivalry that sets up shop there this week.

On the field, we’re likely to see a good game, if anyone can find a way to watch it (no, seriously, if you have any suggestions for how to do that short of hopping a plane to Khartoum myself, PLEASE send them to me).

Egypt toppled Italy, the current World Cup holder, and came close to beating Brazil in this summer’s Confederations Cup, doing so with remarkable swagger and ingenuity. The Pharaohs have an incredible stable of playmakers and can pick from a quartet of forwards (Mido, Zaki, Moteab, Zidan) that would make all but a select few international managers’ mouths water. They play good soccer and they get results.

Which isn’t to discount Algeria, although I don’t believe the Desert Foxes will prevail. The point is, I’m excited by it all. Meanwhile, in Europe, where the away goals rule is in full effect, France’s 1-0 win in Dublin has probably set the stage for a cagey 0-0 in Paris that will see them through, not to mention that getting one goal against the Irish there will kill the tie. That was one of only two away goals scored, for a total of five goals between the four games, and three of the goals were scored between Russia and Slovenia.

I’m not blaming the away goals rule for the problem. The away goals rule didn’t create the eyesore that is the Greek national team, for instance. I’m just saying it doesn’t help when the Greeks and the Irish play for draws at home in the hope of being dragged over the finish line by the away goals rule. And I guess it’s not all bad. After all, it means the world will be subjected to no more than 120 more minutes, plus penalties, of Greece vs. Ukraine.