6 May ~ To walk the streets of Algiers in early May is to be surrounded by thousands of locals clad in the green and white of the Desert Foxes. No surprise there – 40,000 national jerseys have been sold in France alone since the Fennecs' qualification against Egypt last November. What is surprising, though, is to find oneself supping a mint tea in a cafe heaving with bearded regulars sporting the three lions of England on their chests. At a rough guess there are twice as many people wearing England tops on Rue Didouche Mourade as there are on Oxford Street. Yet no one seems to know why.
It is such a cliche (and, far worse than that, a cliche invented by their former colonial masters across the Mediterranean) but, for the majority of Algerians gearing up for the World Cup, it really is the taking part that counts. Most Algerians couldn't name a single player in their team, with the possible exception of Karim Ziani, and all that they know about their manager is that one, he cried on national television and two, someone elected him "Man of The Year".
No, every football conversation across Algeria, from the Mediterranean to the Sahara, goes like this: "Ha, ha, Egypt didn't qualify! We're going to get trounced. But who cares? Let's party!" This is followed by: "Is Beckham in the England team?" (news takes time to filter through to North Africa). Les Verts are rarely interviewed on television, some of them have only ever been to Algeria once or twice, and, let's face it, only one player has ever and will ever count for Algeria: Zinedine Zidane.
A couple of thousand very rich and very privileged Algerians are hoping to make it to South Africa to support the Fennecs. As ever, though, they will have to surmount numerous bureaucratic hurdles – the government has decided that, to obtain one of the new biometric passports, each citizen is obliged to list the names of the friends he went to primary school with as well as the name of his best friend during National Service. As with the England tops, no one seems to know why. David Winter