The Pharaohs needed to not only beat hated rival Algeria in their home match in Cairo last weekend, but had to so by two clear goals. All Algeria had to do was park 11 players in front of their goal for 90 minutes and hope for a draw.
Egypt prevailed, and their reward was today's mouthwatering fixture: A rematch against Algeria in a one game playoff for that coveted South Africa slot. The venue? Khartoum, Sudan, a supposedly neutral playing field.
But Sudan has a large population of Egyptians and strong cultural and trade ties with its northern neighbor Egypt. Expect Egypt to have a "home pitch" advantage.
Still, what could have been a stirring victory against the odds and a match tonight enjoyed by millions across the Middle East has been overshadowed by more evidence that no sport is better at stirring ugly nationalist passions than Pele's "beautiful game."
Just ahead of Saturday's match, a gang of rock throwing Egypt supporters attacked Algeria's team bus, leaving three Algerian players with blood streaming down their faces. Veteran Algerian forward Rafik Saifi caught part of the assault and its aftermath with shaky footage on his personal camcorder. Algeria coach Rabah Saadane blamed his team's defeat on the assault. Dozens of Egyptian and Algerian supporters were injured in violence after the match.
Many international soccer observers were surprised that the match was even played under the circumstances, and it's hard to imagine that a European qualifier between, say, Portugal and England would have been allowed to go forward if global stars like Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo or England's Steven Gerrard were given bloody head-wounds by hooligans shortly before kickoff. FIFA, which styles itself the international steward of the game but is a money spinning operation thanks to World Cup revenue, has been largely silent on the violence so far.
Passions were inflamed even before the first Egypt-Algeria game, with Algerian supporters hacking and defacing the Egyptian Football Association's website and Egyptian supporters responding with a hack of their own in turn, warning Algeria to "prepare for 11 more martyrs."
In the wake of the defeat, Algerian fans attacked Egyptian businesses in Algiers and FIFA and security officials in Sudan, Egypt, and Algeria have been scrambling for the past four days to prevent a replay of the violence during and after a game that brings new meaning to the term "sudden death."
Police have been dispatched in Algiers to protect the Egyptian embassy, Sudan has put 15,000 riot police on the streets of Khartoum to keep Algerian and Egyptian fans apart, and supporters in both neighbors were holding their breath for the kickoff at 12:30 pm Eastern Standard Time.
Ahead of the game, commentators were tipping Egypt to complete its comeback and return to the World Cup for the first time since 1990, when the team failed to make it out of the first round. But Algeria is, if anything, even hungrier, having failed to quality for the cup since 1986.