Algeria have never made it past the group stages of the World Cup before. In fact, Algeria have never even looked remotely competent or exciting at a World Cup before. They’ve tried, of course, but – so far – their most memorable moment in the greatest show on Earth was conceding a late goal to the USA in the 2010 tournament, knocking them out altogether. And there's surely no greater indignity than that.
Last night, however, they had a real opportunity; a draw with Russia would be enough to send them through, and the genuinely great Algeria squad looked like they could achieve what no other had before.
I figured the best place to soak up all the nervous atmosphere would be the centre of Paris – or, more specifically, the area around the Barbès - Rochechouart Metro station, which the city's Algerian population have cornered off as their own. Barbès is a glimpse of the Paris that you're not likely to see mentioned in Tatler's city guides or featured on any souvenir tea towels. To your garden-variety Parisian, the neighbourhood is synonymous with pickpockets, sellers of stolen goods and those little holes in the wall that somehow manage to stay operating despite the fact they only sell key rings and novelty iPhone cases. It's possibly the only truly rough area of Paris proper, and most strikingly – in a city where every other building is a restaurant or a bar – there's very little here.
But last night it was rammed. And judging by the roar of car-horns and cheers after Algeria defeated South Korea on the weekend, I assumed that even a draw with Russia would spark a far better party than the sleepy murmurs that greeted France's recent qualification to the second round.
Arriving at the Barbès Metro, it was clear that the police had anticipated every eventuality. The cops were out in force, ready to step in if Algeria lost and fans decided to deal with their frustration by setting everything on fire (or, like PSG fans last year, celebrate a win by trying to beat the shit out of each other).
The vast expanse of empty, run-down streets in the area might be common in London or Berlin. But in Paris, where you can walk the length of the city and never see anything different – just a series of repeating bars, restaurants, tabacs and sex clubs – it’s fairly eerie.
People congregated anywhere they could – outside chicken shops and phone shops, around car radios and inside cafes closed to the public.
It wasn't just Algerians, either. In fact, it was perfectly acceptable to turn up waving a Moroccan or Tunisian flag, or wearing a Senegalese or Ivorian team shirt. The night was becoming more a congregation of every immigrant group in Paris, rather than an exclusively Algerian affair.
Unfortunately, it soon looked like it wouldn’t be Algeria’s night. Things couldn’t have got off to a worse start, as Russia's Alexander Kokorin planted a header into the net after just six minutes of play. We feared the worst, but the atmosphere remained intense and optimistic. At half-time everybody was – at worst – hopeful, and – at best – totally, 100 percent convinced they were going to nail it.
It's difficult to watch anything on a tiny flat-screen TV past the heads of 50 people, so we had to make our own calls on what all the various cheers and moans meant. We thought Algeria had scored several times before they did, with each flare-up from the crowd turning out to be a won throw-in, or a successful tackle, or the team getting the benefit of a 50/50 call.
And then, in the second half, Islam Slimani made himself a national hero, levelling the score and giving Algeria the advantage. Barbès erupted.
Things quickly got tense again as Russia began to bombard the Algerian goal in the dying minutes. Injury-time was the quietest Paris got that night, but aided by a few decent saves – each greeted with a deafening cheer – Algeria were holding on. Then the moment came: the final whistle.
After certain matches, a win merely confirms what people had grown to expect throughout the game, and is therefore greeted with mere relief. Here, it sparked absolute delirium.
Shirts were removed, lampposts were clambered, cars were piled on and flags were waved with elated intensity. The crowds outside each venue began to converge on the Barbès Metro, sometimes walking slowly, drunk on victory, and sometimes charging forwards, because they didn't know what else to do with themselves.
It was a lost sort of happiness – one that nobody really knew how to express, because they'd never had to before. Climb on a rubbish truck, light a flare, wave an Algerian flag in a cop’s face – each one of them seemed to do the trick.
All roads led to Barbès metro, and flares were sparked up to illuminate the thousands that had gathered. The police had formed a line beneath the station to restrict movement, but they were essentially just spectators – there was no attempt to police the flare-throwing, the taunting or the fog of celebratory joints.
That was a very good idea on their part; one baton swipe and it would have turned into a riot, with the police outnumbered about 50 to one.
Eventually, after plenty of jumping around, the crowds began to dissipate. Everyone moved up the boulevard, past a road full of cars tooting their horns and waving Algerian flags.
If Algeria do the unthinkable and beat Germany, the even-more-unthinkable lies beyond – a game against France. It probably won’t happen, but that doesn’t matter. In fact, it doesn’t matter who wins, and it doesn’t matter who goes on to lift the trophy, because Algeria have already won. It’s 6AM as I write this and all I can hear from my balcony is the cacophony of whooping and beeping, as cars full of fans drive down boulevards spotted with delirious stragglers.
The World Cup is about fleeting moments that stay with you forever, but Algerians in Paris got a whole night. They won’t win the tournament, but they won on June the 26th. That’s all that matters tonight, and it’ll be all that ever matters when they look back on the summer of 2014.