Algeria thought it had booked its place at the 2022 World Cup, and so, in the 118th minute of a do-or-die playoff, after Ahmed Touba scored the goal that seemed to clinch qualification, players streamed across the field in ecstasy.
Fans exploded. Even journalists jumped for joy. Cameras shook as 35,000 at the Stade Mustapha Tchaker celebrated what seemed to be the most dramatic of World Cup qualifying clinchers.
— Goncagolos (@Goncagolos2) March 29, 2022
The celebration raged for minutes, into the second minute of second-half stoppage time in extra time. Fans bounced, twirled T-shirts and waved flags. It would have raged all night, in Blida, Algeria, and in Algiers, and elsewhere.
But then, two minutes later, it stopped in its tracks.
118’ Algeria ⚽️
120+4’ Cameroon ⚽️
Football is full of surprises. Algeria 🇩🇿 thought they had won it. pic.twitter.com/xWylBJ9uGp
— Eric Njiru (@EricNjiiru) March 29, 2022
Cameroonian forward Karl Toko Ekambi swept home a 124th-minute winner, and sent those same Algerian players to the grass in disbelief. Fans rained objects down on the field.
At the final whistle, which came seconds after the match restarted, Djamel Belmadi, Algeria’s manager, fell to his knees and covered his face. Some Algerian players lay face down on the field. Others emulated Belmadi. Others stared off into the distance and cried.
This is Algerian coach Djamel Belmadi. And this is what the World Cup means.
Cameroonian players dancing and singing a few dozen feet away.
Heartbreaking for Algeria. pic.twitter.com/WopgnGU3cI
— Henry Bushnell (@HenryBushnell) March 29, 2022
Ekambi’s strike sent Cameroon to the World Cup via the away goals rule. Algeria had won the first leg in Cameroon last week, 1-0. Cameroon’s 2-1 win in Algeria on Tuesday reversed that deficit, and eliminated the 2019 African champions.
As Cameroonian players piled on top of one another on the pitch, Algerians walked off covering their faces. As Cameroonians danced in circles and sang, and pranced over to a section of traveling fans, Belmadi stayed rooted to the turf, devastated. Colleagues tried to console him, rubbing his shoulders, kissing his bald head. But he was inconsolable.
Out on a mostly empty field, Ismaël Bennacer keeled over on his knees, his face in his hands.
One hundred feet away, defender Aïssa Mandi sat up against a goalpost, his mouth hanging open, his eyes occasionally blinking, his entire being in shock.
They were stunned, distraught, broken.