Dramatic World Cup day unfolds until last kick

The Algerian players were scattered on the grass, their faces covered, their torsos bulging. Their coach, Djamel Belmadi, seemed frozen...


The Algerian players were scattered on the grass, their faces covered, their torsos bulging. Their coach, Djamel Belmadi, seemed frozen in shock. Tears were streaming from her eyes. The moment they had been waiting for, the goal that would send them to the World Cup, took 118 minutes to arrive. They had their last minute winner. And then, in an instant, Cameroon too.

On three continents, it was that kind of evening: an evening of frayed nerves and racing pulses, of thin margins and small details, of exquisite pain and perfect joy. Nowhere was this better summed up than in Blida, a town just south of Algiers, where Algeria and Cameroon took turns breaking hearts.

The Qatar World Cup lasted 12 years, dozens of arrests and an FBI investigation in the making. Its qualifying process was punctuated with interruptions, complications and delays, the result first of the coronavirus pandemic and then of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Even today, barely eight months before the opening match of the tournament, the field is not yet complete, not completely.

Tuesday, however, was the day that much of what was left took shape. In the space of six hours, there were seven spots up for grabs in Europe and Africa, each of them decided in the straight shootout of a knockout head-to-head. For 14 countries, it was the culmination of the last two years and more. It was the moment of no return.

A few nations, in the end, came out relatively comfortably. Morocco overtook the Democratic Republic of Congo. Poland – who were granted a bye into the final round of playoffs after refusing to play against Russia – scrambled to eliminate Sweden.

Portugal struggled for a while against North Macedonia, but seized the first chance presented to them: a single loose pass, mercilessly punished by Bruno Fernandes, seemed to sap the strength of the team that had conquered Italy only a few days ago. Fernandes scored again, in the second half, as the Portuguese flags fluttered serenely around him, Cristiano Ronaldo safely delivered his fifth World Cup.

For the rest, however, there was nothing but tension, anxiety and terror. Ghana edged out Nigeria thanks to a goalkeeping error and Africa, for now, sticking to the away goals rule. Tunisia held on to a goalless draw against Mali, their slim win in the first leg last week being enough to end Mali’s dream of qualifying for their first World Cup.

In Senegal, the pressure seemed to be the most suffocating. Africa’s qualification process is particularly cruel: a long, winding series of group stages followed by a series of winner-takes-all, drawn playoffs, with nothing so manipulative as a ranking system.

So that allowed Senegal and Egypt to go head-to-head: the two teams that are, arguably, the strongest on the continent — they played in the Africa Cup of Nations final in February, after all — and which, most likely, are home to its two best players: Sadio Mané and his club teammate turned international opponent, Mohamed Salah.

Egypt had narrowly won the first leg, but saw their lead disappear a few minutes after the start of the second. From then on, the Egyptians seemed almost to play the penalty shootout, as if driven by a desire to exact the most appropriate revenge for the way they had lost that Nations Cup final.

The few opportunities that existed went to Senegal; all were wasted. The home fans did what they could to tip the scales, aiming a shootout of laser pointers at every Egyptian player, but it made no difference. The clock was ticking inexorably, the game stuck in a stalemate.

When the penalty shoot-out arrived, they underlined how demanding the stress had become. Senegal captain Kalidou Koulibaly hit the crossbar with his attempt. For the first time all evening, Senegal’s new national stadium fell silent. Salah – who was denied the chance to take one in February – came forward for Egypt, a sure thing, only to fire his shot over the bar. He turned away, ripping off his shirt.

Senegal had a reprieve, and immediately missed it: Mohamed El Shenawy, the Egyptian goalkeeper, saved a shot from Saliou Ciss. No matter: Zizo, the second Egyptian selection, sent his shot away with confidence.

Senegal have not been so lenient a second time. Ismaila Sarr and Bamba Dieng scored meaning it was all down to Mané once again. He had scored the decisive penalty in the final of the Nations Cup; he knew now that if he started again, Senegal would go to the World Cup.

A moment later, he stood out to the side of the pitch, smoke billowing around him, fans trying to push back security on the pitch. Once again, Mané had delivered the coup de grace.

But if it was the clash of heavyweights, it was in Algeria that the outcome was the most frantic. Cameroon had canceled out Algeria’s lead in the first leg, forcing the game into extra time, resisting anything and everything their host could muster.

Thanks in large part to the determination of his goalkeeper, André Onana, he seemed to have done enough to force the penalty shootout, only for Ahmed Touba to break his resistance in the 119th minute. Algeria had its last winner. Now, at last, he stood on the brink. It only took a few minutes to arrive in Qatar.

It couldn’t. Cameroon kicked a final free kick into the penalty area and Karl Toko Ekambi, the Lyon striker, forced the ball home. There were 124 minutes on the clock. It was effectively the last kick of the match, the last kick of the last two years.

The Algerian players fell on the grass, in disbelief, sorry. Everything they had worked for, everything they thought they had achieved, was gone in a flash. They had come to the end, and there were still more. It had, across three continents, been that kind of night.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Dramatic World Cup day unfolds until last kick
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