Khartoum Sudan:The streets emptied at sunset. Twitchy-faced soldiers hit the pavement, literally thousands of them, wearing all stripes of camouflage, blues, greens, grays and browns. They twirled clubs and AK-47s and plastic pipes and ragged old beating sticks. Their giant trucks with four-foot-high wheels blocked the roads. This did not feel like a major sporting event. It felt more like a presidential coup.
Two of Africa's powerhouse soccer teams, Egypt and Algeria, were squaring off Wednesday night for a chance to go to next year's World Cup. Rowdy Egyptian and Algerian fans had been playfully goading one another all day, zooming around in minivans, hanging out the windows, flapping their national flags like matadors trying to taunt a bull.
Most of it seemed good-natured, sports-fan stuff. But the Sudanese were not playing games. This is a militaristic place, after all, where children wear deconstructed camouflage uniforms to school and several serious internal conflicts often rage at once (like Darfur and South Sudan).
And to be fair, the Egyptians and Algerians can get a little nutty about soccer. Riots break out nearly every time the teams play, and one epic brawl in 1989 became known as the Match of Hate. The site of Wednesday's showdown happened to be Khartoum, Sudan's swelteringly hot and usually anodyne capital (unless, of course, you're an outspoken woman who is punished for wearing trousers in public).
Tickets were hard to find, but not impossible. Drinking is prohibited in Khartoum. But ticket scalping is apparently not a crime, because this reporter was able to buy three bleacher seats for $20 each after loud and protracted haggling in front of about 50 riot police officers.
Getting into the stadium was harder than getting into Darfur. Four hours before game time all seats were somehow full. The police were even segregating fans blocks away from the stadium, which is across the Nile River in the twin city of Omdurman.
"You Egyptian?" an officer asked and then jerked his stick toward the end of the stadium where all the Egyptian fans were squashed together.
The match was high voltage from the first whistle, with a referee issuing a yellow card for a foul almost immediately, followed by some face pushing and nearly a fight among the players. "Ah, this is getting good," grinned a Sudanese man who paid one Sudanese pound (about 40 cents) to join a musky crowd of men squeezed around a television set.
Egypt was the odds makers' favorite, but the Sudanese seemed behind the underdog Algerians. "Those Egyptians are so arrogant," said Mohamed Naim Suleman, a student from Darfur.
Algeria drew first blood with a rocket shot late in the first half that punched out the net. But the more experienced Egyptians kept up their attack and nearly tied the game several times. But they never did and Algeria won, 1-0. "We had no focus," grumbled an Egyptian engineer who had paid $700 to fly to Khartoum, but ended up getting to the stadium late (actually, he was a half hour early, but that was not early enough) and watched the game on a big-screen TV in a park.
He took the loss in stride and in the end, so did others. There was no widespread rioting. The soldiers and police officers wearily climbed back into their trucks. A sultry breeze lifted off the Nile, blew down the now quiet streets and reclaimed the night.