ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT // The streets of Alexandria, a bustling Mediterranean city of 4.1 million, were unusually quiet on Monday night. But only the streets. Shisha cafes and coffee shops lining the coast were overflowing with people. Even at the malls, there were swarms around television sets as men and women followed the live broadcast of Egypt's game against Paraguay from Cairo, praying for the three points that would reserve the host nations' place in the second round of the Under 20 World Cup.
Then four minutes into added time, the buzz suddenly stopped as Aldo Paniagua gave Paraguay a 2-1 win, breaking millions of Egyptians hearts. Crestfallen, the fans trooped out back on to the streets in deathly silence. The defeat put Egypt at risk of becoming the eighth host nation not to progress beyond the group stages and they will be desperate to avoid that fate when they take on Italy tonight.
They need to beat the Azzuri, or at least get a point, to assure themselves of a place as one of the four best third-placed teams. The Egyptian coach Miroslav Soukup is fully aware of the challenge and said: "The match will decide whether we qualify for the next round or not, so we simply have to win. "The defeat against Paraguay was a bitter pill to swallow and we're now in a situation we'd have liked to avoid."
Though heartbroken, the fans will be back at the stadium, coffee shops, shisha cafes and malls to support their team, but the Italians will not be overwhelmed by the numbers against them. "We're going to have 70,000 screaming fans to contend with," said the Italian coach Francesco Rocca. "But we've been preparing for that since the draw was made and we won't be intimidated." With their fate hanging by a thread, the Egyptians must be wishing they were playing Tahiti instead. The Oceania champions have been the whipping boys, shipping eight goals apiece against Spain and Venezuela, and there must be some interesting odds on how many they will concede against Nigeria tonight.
The Nigerians are without a goal or win thus far, but even a 10-goal victory may not be enough to guarantee their spot in the second round. "We have absolutely no margin for error now," said a frustrated Samson Siasia, coach of Nigeria. "We need to start doing all the things we've failed to do so far, and that's winning and scoring goals. And even that might not be enough." Spain and Venezuela have already qualified from the group and they will be battling for the top position tonight. The Spaniards will, of course, go in as favourites, blessed with an armada of talents.
Though unconvincing in their qualifying campaign, they have looked the best team at the tournament along with five-time champions Brazil. Ghana are potential candidates to become the team from the host continent to win the title. They looked as convincing as Spain and Brazil in their 2-1 conquest of Uzbekistan and 4-0 drubbing of England. And Egypt could still go all the way, riding on the support from their "hubbly bubbly" brigade.