World Cup Drama Day comes down to the final blow

Algerian players were scattered on the pitch, their faces covered, their chests rising. Their coach, Djamel Belmadi, seemed to be frozen in shock. 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 arrive. They had their winner at the last minute. And then, in an instant, Cameroon.

On three continents, it was such an evening: those of worn-out nerves and rapid pulses, fine margins and small details, extraordinary suffering and perfect joy. Nowhere was it better captured than in Blida, a city a little south of Algeria, where Algeria and Cameroon alternately broke hearts.

The World Cup in Qatar lasts 12 years, dozens of arrests and one FBI investigation in preparation. Her qualification process was one of the interruptions, complications and delays, the result of the coronavirus pandemic first, and then the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Even now, barely eight months after the first game of the tournament, the field is not yet complete, it is not complete.

Tuesday, however, was a day when much of what was left took shape. In the space of six hours, seven places had to be filled in Europe and Africa, and each of them was decided in the direct split of the playoffs. For 14 countries – and several others in South America battling for last hope of an intercontinental playoff spot – this has been the culmination of the past two years and more. This was a moment of no return.

Several nations, in the end, passed relatively comfortably. Morocco passed by the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Poland – which said goodbye to the final round of the playoffs after refusing to play with Russia – has set out to send Sweden off.

Portugal struggled for a while against Northern Macedonia, but took advantage of the first opportunity given to it: just one missed pass, ruthlessly punished by Bruno Fernandes, seemed to have exhausted the strength of the team that won Italy just a few days ago. Fernandes scored again, in the second half, while the Portuguese flags fluttered calmly around him, Cristiano Ronaldo surely delivered his fifth World Cup.

For the rest, however, there was nothing but tension, anxiety, and fear. Ghana beat Nigeria thanks to the goalkeeper’s slip and the fact that Africa remains tied to the away goal rule for now. Tunisia endured a goalless draw against Mali, which was his slim victory in the first game last week enough to break Mali’s dream of qualifying for his first World Cup.

In Senegal, the pressure seemed to be greatest. The African qualifying process is uniquely cruel: a long, winding series of group stages followed by a series of playoffs that the winner takes all, drawn at random, without anything as manipulative as the carrier system.

This allowed Senegal and Egypt to face each other: two teams that are probably the strongest on the continent – still competing in the African Cup of Nations final in February – and which are probably home to his two best players: Sadio Mané and his clubmate who became an international opponent, Mohamed Salah.

Egypt won the first game, closely, but its lead disappeared within minutes of the start of the second. From that moment on, it seemed that the Egyptians were almost playing on penalties, as if driven by a desire to take revenge most appropriately for the way they lost that Nations Cup final.

What few opportunities there were belonged to Senegal; they were all spent. The home fans did everything they could to balance, directing a fusion of laser pointers at each Egyptian player, but there was no difference. The clock was ticking relentlessly, the game was in a stalemate.

When the penalties arrived, they stressed how demanding 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 opportunity to take him in February – left for Egypt, which is certain, just to score over the goal. He turned, tearing his jersey.

Senegal gave up and immediately blew it: Mohamed El Shenawy, Egypt’s goalkeeper, defended Saliou Cissa’s shot. No matter: Zizo, Egypt’s second team, confidently sent his effort.

The second time, Senegal did not prove so forgiving. Ismaila Sarr and Bamba Dieng scored a goal, which means that everything hung on Mané once again. He scored the deciding penalty in the Nations Cup final; now he knew Senegal would go to the World Cup if he did it again.

A moment later, he was running to the edge of the field, smoke was swirling around him, and the fans were trying to push past the security on the field. Once again, Mané performed a coup de grace.

But while it was a heavyweight clash, the outcome was the craziest in Algeria. Cameroon annulled the lead of Algeria from the first game, forcing the game into extra time, enduring everything and everything that the host could collect.

Mainly thanks to the determination of her goalkeeper Andre Onane, she seemed to have done enough to extort penalties, for Ahmed Touba to break the resistance in the 119th minute. Algeria had its late winner. Now he was finally on the edge. It only took a few minutes to reach Qatar.

It couldn’t. Cameroon took another free kick into the penalty area, and Karl Toko Ekambi, the Lyon striker, forced the ball home. It was 124 minutes on the clock. It was, in fact, the last blow of the game, the last blow in the last two years.

The Algerian players sank on the grass, in disbelief, inconsolable. Everything they worked for, everything they thought they had achieved, disappeared in an instant. They came to an end, and there were more. It was, on three continents, such an evening.

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