The Algerian players were spread out on the turf, their faces covered, their chests heavy. Their coach, Jamel Belmadi, is stunned. Tears welled up in his eyes. The moment they were waiting for, the goal that would send them to the World Cup, took 118 minutes to reach. They were their last-minute winners. And then, in a moment, so Cameroon.
Across three continents, it was that kind of evening: a faint nerve and quick pulse, fine margins and small details, great anguish and perfect joy. It was nowhere near as good as Blida, a town just south of Algiers, where Algeria and Cameroon broke each other’s hearts.
The Qatar World Cup has been 12 years, with dozens of arrests and the creation of an FBI investigation. Its qualification process was one of obstacles and complexities and delays, resulting in first the coronavirus epidemic and then the Russian invasion of Ukraine. With eight months left until the opening match of the tournament, the field is not yet complete.
Tuesday, though, was the day when much was left. In the space of six hours, seven slots have to be filled in Europe and Africa, each of which has decided on a direct shootout of the head-to-head play-offs. For 14 countries – and a few more in South America fighting for the last hope of inter-continental play-off spots – this was the final outcome of the last two years or so. This was not the moment to return.
A couple country, in the end, made it relatively comfortable. Morocco has overtaken the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Poland – who have been knocked out of the final play-offs after refusing to play Russia – have moved to bid farewell to Sweden.
Portugal worked hard for a while against Northern Macedonia, but were granted it at the first opportunity: a single loose pass, ruthlessly punished by Bruno Fernandez, seemed to suggest that the team had just beaten Italy a few days earlier. Fernandez scored again, in the second half, when the Portuguese flag fluttered around him, Cristiano Ronaldo safely reached his fifth World Cup.
For the rest, though, there was nothing but excitement and anxiety and panic. Ghana beat Nigeria for a goalkeeping slip and Africa are currently married off-goal rules. Tunisia drew 0-0 with Mali, their weak win in the first leg last week was enough to end Mali’s dream of qualifying for the first World Cup.
In Senegal, stress seems to be the most suffocating. Africa’s qualifying process is uniquely brutal: a long, revolving series of group episodes followed by a set of winner-take-all playoffs, drawn randomly, without the same twists as the seed sowing method.
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It then allowed Senegal and Egypt to face each other: the two teams that, arguably, the continent’s strongest – competed in the final of the Africa Cup of Nations in February – and which, presumably, their home. Its two best players: Sadio Mane and his club mate international opponent Mohammad Salah.
Egypt won the first leg, briefly, but lost their lead within minutes of the start of the second leg. Since then, the Egyptians almost seemed to be playing for penalties, driven by a desire for the most appropriate revenge for the way they lost in that Cup of Nations final.
What less opportunity Senegal had; They were all ruined. The home fans did what they could to balance, pointing a fuselage of laser pointers at each Egyptian player, but there was no difference. The clock is ticking unnecessarily, the game is locked to a standstill.
When it comes to penalty kicks, they show how accurate the stress was. Senegal captain Kalidu Caulibali hit the crossbar in his attempt. For the first time throughout the evening, Senegal’s new national stadium fell silent. Salah – turned down a chance to take in February – went ahead for Egypt, a sure thing, only to fire over his shot bar. He tore his jersey and turned away.
Senegal got a revenge, and immediately blew it: Mohamed El Shenoui, Egypt goalkeeper, saved a shot from Saliu Sis. No matter: Jizo, Egypt’s second election, confidently sent his efforts widely.
Senegal has not shown so much forgiveness for the second time. Ismaila Sar and Bamba Diang scored, meaning everything hangs in the balance again. He scored the decisive penalty in the Cup of Nations final; He knew, now, that if he did it again, Senegal would go to the World Cup.
A moment later, he was tearing up the side of the field, smoke billowing around him, fans trying to push past security towards the field. Again, that means the coup delivered.
But when it came to heavyweight clashes, this condemnation was the most insane in Algeria. Cameron canceled out the Algerian lead from the first leg, forcing the game into extra time, tolerating anything and whatever his organizers could collect.
Thanks to the determination of its goalkeeper, Andre Onana, Ahmed Touba seemed to have done enough to force a penalty in the 119th minute when he broke his resistance. Algeria was its late winner. Now, at last, it stands on edge. It only took a few minutes to reach Qatar.
Couldn’t do that. Cameron started a final free kick in the penalty area and Leon striker Carl Toko Ikambi took the ball home. 124 minutes on the clock then. It was, effectively, the last kick of the game, the last kick of the last two years.
The Algerian players are drowning in the grass, distrustful, frustrated. What they worked for, what they thought they achieved, disappeared in a flash. They finally arrived, and there was more. It was this kind of evening across three continents.