Algeria’s players were strewn on the turf, their faces covered, their chests heaving. Their coach, Djamel Belmadi, seemed frozen by shock. Tears streamed from his 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, so did Cameroon.
Across three continents, it was that kind of evening: one of frayed nerves and quickened pulses, of fine margins and small details, of exquisite suffering and perfect joy. Nowhere was that encapsulated better than in Blida, a city a little south of Algiers, where Algeria and Cameroon took turns breaking each other’s hearts.
The Qatar World Cup has been 12 years, dozens of arrests and one F.B.I. investigation in the making. Its qualification process has been one of interruptions and complications and delays, the result first of the coronavirus pandemic and then of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Even now, scarcely eight months out from the tournament’s opening match, the field is not yet complete, not fully.
Tuesday, though, was the day when much of what was left took shape. In the space of six hours, there were seven slots to be filled in Europe and Africa, each of them decided in the straight shootout of a head-to-head playoff. For 14 countries, this was the culmination of the past two years and more. This was the moment of no return.
A couple nations, in the end, made it through relatively comfortably. Morocco swept past the Democratic Republic of Congo. Poland — handed a bye to the final playoff round after refusing to play Russia — stirred itself to see off Sweden.
Portugal toiled for a while against North Macedonia, but seized on the first opportunity it was granted: a single loose pass, punished ruthlessly 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 Portuguese flags fluttered serenely around him, Cristiano Ronaldo safely delivered to his fifth World Cup.
For the rest, though, there was nothing but tension and anxiety and dread. Ghana edged Nigeria thanks to a goalkeeping slip and the fact that Africa, for now, remains wedded to the away-goals rule. Tunisia held on for a goal-less draw against Mali, its slender victory in the first leg last week enough to end Mali’s dream of qualifying for its first World Cup.
In Senegal, the pressure seemed to be at its most suffocating. Africa’s qualification process is uniquely cruel: a long, winding series of group stages followed by a set of winner-take-all playoffs, drawn at random, without anything as manipulative as a seeding system.
That allowed Senegal and Egypt, then, to face each other: the two teams who are, arguably, the continent’s strongest — they contested the final of the Africa Cup of Nations in February, after all — and which, most likely, are home to its two finest players: Sadio Mané and his club teammate turned international opponent, Mohamed Salah.
Egypt had won the first leg, narrowly, but saw its lead wiped out within a few minutes of the start of the second. From that point on, the Egyptians almost seemed to be playing for penalties, as if driven by a desire to exact the most fitting revenge for the way they lost that Cup of Nations final.
What few opportunities there were fell to Senegal; all of them were wasted. The home fans did what they could to tilt the balance, directing a fusillade of laser pointers onto each and every Egyptian player, but it made no difference. The clock ticked inexorably on, the game locked in a stalemate.
When penalty kicks arrived, they underlined how exacting the stress had become. Kalidou Koulibaly, the Senegal captain, hit the crossbar with his attempt. For the first time all evening, Senegal’s new national stadium fell silent. Salah — denied the chance to take one in February — stepped up for Egypt, a sure thing, only to blaze his shot over the bar. He turned away, tearing at his jersey.
Senegal had a reprieve, and immediately blew it: Mohamed El Shenawy, the Egypt goalkeeper, saving a shot from Saliou Ciss. No matter: Zizo, Egypt’s second selection, confidently sent his effort wide.
Senegal did not prove so forgiving a second time around. Ismaila Sarr and Bamba Dieng scored, meaning that everything hung, once more, on Mané. He had scored the decisive penalty in the Cup of Nations final; he knew, now, that if he did so again, Senegal would go to the World Cup.
A moment later, he was tearing off to the side of the field, smoke billowing around him, fans trying to push past security onto the field. Once again, Mané had delivered the coup de grâce.
But while that was the heavyweight clash, it was in Algeria that the denouement was most frenzied. Cameroon had canceled out Algeria’s lead from the first leg, forcing the game to extra time, withstanding anything and everything its host could muster.
Thanks largely to the determination of its goalkeeper, Andre Onana, it seemed to have done enough to force penalties, only for Ahmed Touba to break its resistance in the 119th minute. Algeria had its late winner. Now, at the last, it stood on the brink. It needed only to hold out for a couple of minutes to make it to Qatar.
It could not. Cameroon launched one 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 game, the last kick of the last two years.
Algeria’s players sank to the grass, disbelieving, disconsolate. Everything they had worked for, everything they thought they had achieved, had disappeared in a flash. They had arrived at the end, and there had still been more. It had, across three continents, been that type of evening.