Why Egypt fans are snubbing Mohamed Salah by cheering on Riyad Mahrez and Algeria in Afcon final
Manchester City forward's heroics in guiding side to Friday's final with Senegal has impressed Egyptians
Egyptian football fans, for just one day on Friday, will have a new hero to worship other than Mohamed Salah. His name is Riyad Mahrez.
Crushed by their own country's humiliating exit from the Africa Cup of Nations, many local fans have found in Mahrez and the rest of the Algeria a team that has proven to be everything their national squad was not.
So when Alegria comes out of the tunnel on Friday at the Cairo International Stadium to play the final against Senegal, the north African side may very well feel at home.
An estimated 10,000 Algerian fans are expected to be at the stadium to cheer their team, with many Egyptian supporters also throwing their backing behind them.
"Algeria plays the kind of football that we wanted and hoped Egypt would play," wrote Hassan Al Misikawi, one of Egypt's top football analysts, in the newspaper Al Shorouk.
"Algeria makes you fall in love with football with all its difficulties and complexities."
For Egyptian fans to root for Algeria, even just for 90 minutes, is nothing less than a seismic shift in the sport's African landscape given the bitter and long-running rivalry between the two Arab nations.
How it came about has perhaps more to do with Egypt's poor showing at the tournament than anything else.
The Egyptians won all three group matches but were never convincing. They lost in the round of last 16 at the hands of South Africa.
The disappointment of exiting the tournament was compounded by sexual harassment allegations against a member of the squad, midfielder Amr Warda, who was thrown out of the squad but reinstated two days later following a players' revolt led by Salah, whose defence of his teammate earned him scathing criticism at home and abroad.
"There is a great deal of admiration for Algeria here because Egyptian fans found in that team what they could not find in their own," said Sabry Sirag, a prominent football commentator.
"It is Algeria's commitment, discipline and the passion with which they play. The fans' widespread discontent over Egypt's poor showing has morphed into admiration and support for Algeria."
The shift, though temporary, of support for Algeria also has something to do with the anger directed at Salah over both his defence of Warda and what is widely seen as his failure to lead the Pharaohs' through to the latter stages of the tournament.
Again, those sentiments found an outlet in the adulation local fans now have for Manchester City's Mahrez.
His last-gasp goal from a free-kick that secured Algeria a 2-1 semi-final win against Nigeria earlier this week has gone a long way to confirm his status as a star in the eyes of Egyptian fans.
"They are punishing Salah by rallying around Mahrez," Sirag added
Friday's match, meanwhile, is posing a security challenge to Egyptian authorities, which are expected to launch an elaborate security operation to maintain order during and after the match.
The company in charge of selling match tickets to fans advised Algerians flying to Cairo for the match to apply for fan IDs, a requirement introduced by the organisers to keep out known troublemakers.
It said they can apply for the IDs upon arrival at Cairo airport, but those who would not have time to do so must show their passports alongside their tickets when entering the stadium.
Already, authorities have had a taste of what could go wrong during Friday's final.
Algerian fans turned violent when a few Egyptians politely applauded when Nigeria equalised in the semi-final. The Algerians threw empty water bottles at the Egyptians and security forces. They also damaged some of the seats.
Security forces moved quickly to arrest the Algerian troublemakers and deported some of them, according to security officials.
The violence earlier this week reminded many Egyptians of the tension and occasional violence that marred past clashes between Egypt and Algeria.
Curiously, the question of which of the two teams - Algeria or Senegal - is more deserving of the support of local fans has been discussed at length on social media.
Those in favour of Algeria look to the fact that it is a fellow Arab country and argue that Egypt's exit from the tournament offers a good opportunity for fans in both nations to move on from their past as fierce rivals.
The few who will support Senegal say that, like Egypt, it is a predominantly Muslim nation and, unlike the Algerians, Senegalese fans have had no trouble with the Egyptians.
Updated: July 19, 2019 10:23 AM