Algeria in Queens, New York
Watching the World Cup match between Algeria vs Germany in one of New York City's most diverse boroughs.
Islamic hymns emanated from street food carts on Steinway Street in Astoria, Queens, in observance of Ramadan. At Cafe Borbone, a non-descript Italian coffeehouse nearby, a middle-aged, working-class, almost all-male crowd gathered for Algeria’s maiden knockout round appearance, with not even a glass of water in sight, a far cry from the chic shisha bars just down the road.
The air was humid, stuffy, and hot. Their blood was hotter. The cafe’s narrow corridors and private back-room parlor – where the most hardline supporters convened – were effectively the private New York lair of Les Fennecs (The Desert Wolves).
“You are not welcome here!”, one perturbed fan shouted at us, demanding a swift exit as lights were switched off to brighten the dim glow of a shoddy television feed.
His angst could be excused given the opponents.
Algeria’s national team once formed the footballing arm of the anti-colonial National Liberation Front (FLN). In 1982, two decades after independence, they became the first African team to defeat European opposition at a World Cup, trumping West Germany in a group stage match. But that achievement did not allow Algeria to advance.
In the final group match, Germany led Austria 1-0, a scoreline that secured passage for both teams at the expense of the North African newcomers. The game stagnated and the score stood. Many on all sides suspected foul play.
“The Germans and Austrians contrived to make sure we didn’t go through.” former midfielder Lakhdar Belloumi, one of the stars in Algeria’s constellation of talent in the 1980s, told The Daily Star.
The Guardian recalled that a German commentator “almost sobbed during the match as he lamented: ‘What is happening here is disgraceful and has nothing to do with football.’”
Algeria’s current head coach, Vadid Halilhodzic, said that the memory still lingers. “We talk all the time about this match in 1982,” he told The New York Times.
That injustice was not lost on Queens’ 1000 or so Algerian community, either, who ardently believed “Quatre vent deux (’82)” would inspire an organized, youthful Algerian side to continue the stuttering narrative of giant-killing in Brazil.
“They have a complex against us,” said Amine, 38, a pastry chef.
For the entirety of the first half, his words rang true. Algeria’s relentless strategy of direct balls to forwards and wing-backs exposed Germany’s risky high defensive line. Were it not for the dynamic sweeping of Manuel Neuer, Algeria would have reaped due rewards.
They continued to strut the pitch with authority, creating chances and revealing new gaps in Germany’s prided defense. But the inability to break Neuer’s lines threatened to turn a crowd’s passion into ire.
A minority, meanwhile, were more preoccupied envisioning a potential meeting with erstwhile colonial power, France, in the quarterfinals. “There will be big problems in Paris,” said a luxury watch dealer, who asked to remain anonymous, with a wry smile.
Sixteen members of Algeria’s World Cup squad were born in France, and porous allegiances were not taken lightly at Borbone. Slurs thrown at a fan of German birth escalated into a bout of fisticuffs. “It’s just a joke,” said the peace brokers to alarmed patrons, in the close-quarters emotional hotbed of a venue.
The valiant fight in Porto Alegre, however, diminished as Andre Schürrle and Mesut Özil capitalized on an exhausted Algeria in extra time. The goalkeeping gates of Raïs M’Bolhi finally cracked.
Even before Algeria’s deserved but irrelevant late goal, the lights were switched back on and an exodus ensued. The suffering was palpable, but the reality beautiful.
“This is a new team, new players, young players, we’re at the World Cup,” said Tarik Daidai, 22, a college student, as cars zipped by with fans waving Algerian flags from sunroofs, celebrating what felt like victory. “Everything is okay for us.”
Despite failing to introduce Abdelmoumene Djabou earlier, which irked the faithful, Halilhodzic escaped indictment, his tears at the final whistle underlining an unordinary dedication by a foreign manager of an African side.
Algeria’s largest French-language newspaper, Liberté, said that the team could look back on their most successful World Cup with “sword in hand and head high,” a sentiment shared by Algerians in the Maghreb neighborhood of Queens, as they broke their fast for the day.