Four years ago, almost to the day, I ambled up the road from my Hackney flat just as the Algeria v Russia World Cup game in Curbita Brazil was reaching its climax. It was the final group game and Algeria were minutes away from qualifying for the knock-out stages for the first time in four attempts since they first qualified as an independent country in 1982. Having gone one down, they equalised on 60 minutes earning them the draw they needed to go through. The top of Blackstock Road in Finsbury Park is often referred to as ‘little North Africa’, and the tension in the mainly Algerian shops and cafes was palpable as the seconds ticked excruciatingly slowly towards the final whistle. Moments after the result was confirmed, fireworks were projected into the North London sky and the street soon became a sea of jubilant Algerians and a cacophony of whistles and drums.
I captured a few photos of that scene for The Beautiful World of Football.
At the same time in Algiers, one of the city’s main squares, ‘La Grande Poste’ was crammed to bursting point with tens of thousands of people watching the game on a big screen. The clip below shows various recordings of the moment when Slimani’s sixtieth minute equaliser put Algeria in the box seat for qualification. The noise at 2.08, as the goal is scored, recorded from high above the square, is spine-tingling.
Fast forward four years, and I happen to be in Algiers for World Cup 2018 on the day of the England v Belgium group game. The big screens are dotted around the capital to show every game, however, the general atmosphere is one of profound regret: Algeria, unlike the North African neighbours, Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt, failed to qualify for Russia. That said, the main topic of conversation in the taxis and hotel is still about the football – but lacking any sort of passion or real engagement about the proceedings. I leave my hotel around six o-clock to give me around an hour to walk the 30 minute route to the Grande Poste big screen for the seven o’clock kick off. Having been to Algiers on a number of occasions I should have remembered that it is one of the most photogenic cities I’ve ever been to. One hour and twenty minutes later, having deviated down every side street and taken photos of street art, mosques, churches, 19th and 20th century French style buildings with their ubiquitous blue shutters, I reach the big screen at La Grande Poste. It’s 0-0 after 20 minutes and it appears that both teams are playing their reserves.
The relatively sparse crowd seems fairly nonplussed by the events on the pitch. Even a five minute period where a third of the screen goes black is greeted without even a murmur of disdain. They seem to be divided 50/50 between England and Belgium. Lots of Premiership kits are in evidence including a diehard Blackburn Rovers fan. A significant cheer greets Janusaj’s curler into the top-left-hand corner. Equally loud groans meet Welbeck’s missed one-on-one. The crowd wake-up every time Harry Kane is shown warming up on the touch-line. It felt like everyone was desperate for a bit of gold dust.
As the final whistle blew, people stream away, probably writing the game off as a non-event. Four years ago, it was anything but.