Photos by Hugo Denis-Queinec
Algeria has never made it past the group stages of the World Cup before, likely because Algeria has never even looked remotely competent or exciting at a World Cup before. Their players have tried and tried again, of course, but so far their most memorable moment in the greatest show on Earth was conceding a late goal to the US in the 2010 tournament, which 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 to the knockout stage, and the genuinely great Algeria squad looked like it could achieve what no other had before.
I figured the best place to soak up all the nervous atmosphere would be the center of Paris—or more specifically, the area around the Barbès – Rochechouart Metro station, which the city's Algerian population has cornered off as its own. Barbès is a glimpse of the Paris that you're not likely to see mentioned in city guides or featured on any souvenir T-shirts. To your garden-variety Parisian, the neighborhood is synonymous with pickpockets, sellers of stolen goods, and those little holes in the wall that somehow manage to stay open despite only selling 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 are very few of those establishments here.
But last night it was rammed. And judging by the roar of car horns and cheers after Algeria defeated South Korea over the weekend, I assumed that even a draw with Russia would spark a far better party than the sleepy murmurs that greeted the French team's recent advance 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 some Parisian 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 repeating series of 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 halftime 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 flatscreen TV over the heads of 50 people, so we had to make our own calls on what all the various cheers and moans meant. We thought the Algerians 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, evening the score and giving Algeria the advantage. Barbès erupted.
Things quickly got tense again as Russia began to bombard the Algerian goal in the final minutes. Stoppage time was the quietest Paris got that night, but after by a few decent saves—each greeted with a deafening cheer—Algeria held 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. The crowds outside each venue began to converge on the Barbès Metro, sometimes walking slowly, drunk on victory, and sometimes charging forward 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 garbage truck, light a flare, wave an Algerian flag in a cop’s face—each one of these tactics seemed to do the trick.
All roads led to Barbès Metro, and flares were sparked up to illuminate the thousands that had gathered there. The police had formed a line beneath the station to restrict movement, but they were essentially just spectators—there was no attempt to stop the flare-throwing, the taunting, or the fog coming from celebratory joints.
That was a very good idea on the cops' 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 does the unthinkable and beats 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 has already won. It’s 6 AM 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 July 26. That’s all that matters tonight, and it’ll be all that ever matters when they look back on the summer of 2014.