On Tuesday, Senegal and Egypt played a soccer game in Senegal, the winner of which would play in the World Cup this fall in Qatar. The game went to penalty kicks. The first four penalty takers missed, a statistically unlikely outcome given that during penalty shootouts approximately three out of four penalty kicks go in. One of the players who missed was Egypt’s Mohamed Salah, one of the best goal-scorers in the world, who missed the net by several feet. A contributing factor to his miss may well have been the dozens of laser pointers shining in his face.
Officially, laser pointers are prohibited in soccer stadiums, because they can not only interfere with play but also cause serious eye damage. Unofficially, they are often used and in extreme cases tolerated by stadium officials. Yesterday’s Senegal-Egypt match was one of those extreme cases.
For those who watched the entire match, which definitely did not include this reporter who was diligently working during the time of the match which aired in the early afternoon U.S. Eastern Time, laser pointers were a conspicuous presence throughout the game. The assumed intention is for fans to distract or otherwise obscure the vision of the opposing team, resulting in a competitive advantage. Seemingly every time the camera panned to Egypt’s goalkeeper or an Egyptian player taking a throw-in, at least a dozen green dots would appear on and around the player in question, including several on the player’s face. When the camera panned to the crowd, viewers could easily see where the lasers were coming from.
Laser pointers have a long history in soccer matches, particularly World Cup qualifiers, major international tournaments, and during crucial penalty kicks. To pick just a few examples: In 2014, the Algeria Football Association was fined after fans shined laser beams in the Russian keeper’s face. Last summer, the England Football Association was also fined when England fans pointed laser pointers at Denmark keeper Kasper Schmeichel during a crucial penalty in the Euro semifinals. In 2008, French club Lyon was fined when a laser pointer shone in Cristiano Ronaldo’s face during a Champions League match. Fans for Greek club PAOK used laser pointers in a Champions League qualifier in 2018, and laser pointers were blamed for Wayne Rooney’s horrible penalty miss in 2015.
To what degree the laser pointers influenced the penalty shootout—not to mention the 120 minutes of play that preceded it—is one of those things sports fans will argue about for eternity. Senegal outplayed Egypt—racking up 25 shots to Egypt’s 5—just as they had in the Africa Cup of Nations final on February 6, a game played in a neutral stadium which they also won on penalties. And while Salah’s miss was certainly strange for an elite goal-scorer, Senegal’s first two penalty-takers also missed their kicks which had nothing to do with laser pointers. That being said, one would think having dozens of bright green lights flashing in your face makes focusing on kicking a ball into a net harder.
The laser pointers were just one aspect of alleged unruly crowd behavior. Egypt’s Football Association claimed Senegal fans threw bottles and rocks at Egypt’s players before the game, racially abused the players, and that the team buses were “exposed to assaults” that broke windows. FIFA said it is investigating all of the above.