On Sunday afternoon, I rode the metro up from my place in the thirteenth arrondissment to Belleville, in the northeastern part of Paris, to take in the Algeria-Slovenia match in a neighborhood with a large Algerian population. Almost as soon as I emerged from the station onto the wide Rue Belleville, I met Ben, an Algerian immigrant whose parents were French, and his son Ilias. They were selling the green and white jerseys of the Algerian national team, both draped in Algerian flags themselves. Ilias predicted a 2-0 Algerian win; Ben thought 1-0.
Ben directed me to a local dive about a quarter mile down the boulevard, called the Cafe Hotel de Paris, where he was sure there would be a good Algerian crowd. There was, about forty men crammed onto wooden chairs in the back room of a small cafe. The game was about to begin, and it was displayed on a small TV in the corner of the room. The place was dimly lit, but I could make out photos of the Algerian squad covering the walls, as well as one older photo, which I was told showed the 1970 Algerian club team CRB.
The mood in the room was lively and expectant. The men, and they were all men between about twenty-five and sixty-five, chatted loudly in Arabic. I bought some tea and took a seat in the middle of the group. Soon, two young Europeans, a Frenchman and a Czech, walked into the cafe and sat next to me. We got to talking and agreed the US team had not played half bad the night before. “Are you French?” the Czech asked me. “Worse,” I said, “I’m American.”
The first half was excellent, though of course scoreless, the Algerian team keeping control of the ball with touch passes in the defense and quick runs up top. At halftime we all went out front of the cafe and smoked. The Algerians were in exalted moods. I talked with Abbes, the Algerian-born owner of the bar. I asked him how he was feeling, and he told me, “I am proud to see my country in the Cup. It’s been twenty-four years since we’ve been here. This is grandiose for us, a good surprise.”
We went back inside as the second half began, and the game quickly turned dismal–a Serbian goal, an Algerian red card, and the game was over. Afterwards, I hung out in the front room of the cafe for a while and commiserated. Most of the men took a philosophical attitude towards the result (as one reminded me, “Football, it’s not an exact science”), but others were less forgiving (Brihimi Zacharias, a college student I later played pick-up soccer with, reported, with only slight sarcasm, “Today, I am ashamed to be an Algerian”). During the game, the Algerian fans had chanted at crucial moments, sprung from their chairs with close calls, and maintained ironic grins until the end–more detached than the open, or perhaps exaggerated, investment in the match that characterizes American fans, but more collective and animated than French fans.
In the aftermath of the loss, I was interested to know whether the Algerians would also be supporting other teams in the World Cup. They would, they said immediately. Abbes liked Italy; others liked Brazil; a young man with a thin face named Mohamed Meghrici was rooting for Argentina, though he reported he was not a “Messian.” They all said they were proud of their country, and would support it before any other, but that they were general fans of the sport as well and followed many of the good teams.
By their country, they had all meant Algeria, though, so I asked, would they support France in the World Cup as well? “Of course,” Abbes responded, to general assent. “Pourquoi pas?”