Road to Rio: Algerian fans keep the faith by enjoying the party
Belo Horizonte has a student-like atmosphere while Brasilia is almost all about the Colombians
With 21 minutes left on the clock, it seems like the footballing gods are smiling on Algeria. Paired against tournament dark horses Belgium in their opening game, the North Africans have surprised everyone by taking a 1-0 lead, the players marking the moment with a team celebration that resembled a synchronised prayer at the corner flag.
Gathered in an upper section of the Estadio Mineirao, the three or four thousand Algerian fans have been offering up their own songs of praise, chanting relentlessly and dominating the atmosphere in the stadium just as they had in the streets of Belo Horizonte the previous evening. But an equaliser from Belgium takes the wind out of their sails, and by the time Dries Mertens hits a late winner for the Europeans, they sit as silent and stony faced as statues in a long-forgotten temple.
Carlos, the philosophical Ecuador fan sitting in the seat to my left, shrugs as the Belgian players celebrate. "God does not play football" is all he says. Whatever blow this defeat has dealt to their footballing faith, the Algerian fans are over it by the evening, joining their more reserved Belgian counterparts and thousands of other football-shirt-clad revellers in a square in the city's Savassi area. The Brazil-Mexico game later in the day has brought the locals out in force, and the streets are filled with boisterous fans drinking canned beer and wickedly strong caipirinhas from street carts dripping with melted ice.
Chants erupt periodically as supporters of various stripes show off their devotion, and fans of other nations join in enthusiastically while clouds of smoke from cigarettes, joints and the occasional flare drift over our heads.
A group of students from the local university tell us proudly that Belo Horizonte has the most beautiful women in Brazil, and while it's a claim we hear in just about every city we visit, it's hard to argue as pretty girls in Brazil shirts light up the crowd like fireflies. Couples embrace brazenly and uninhibitedly wherever we look and there's a bacchanalian spirit in the air that is positively infectious and unmistakably South American.
It seems a fitting setting - and reward - for the first leg of our World Cup pilgrimage. I'm here with Rob and Randy, two teammates from my Hong Kong football club Wanchai Spartans, as well as Tom, Rob's friend from the UK, and the banter is flowing like the Rivers of Babylon as we talk football, girls and the bleak inevitability of England's early exit. Belo Horizonte, like Sao Paulo, is not a particularly pretty city, but it has a buoyant energy and a studenty vibe that makes us instantly fall for it. But all too soon it's time for us leave and head to Brasilia, where we have tickets for the mouthwatering Colombia-Ivory Coast clash.
If Belo Horizonte was dominated by rowdy Algerians and unassuming Belgians, then Brasilia was all about the Colombians. Wherever we go, the bars and restaurants are filled with Colombian fans dressed, almost without exception, in their country's bright yellow strip and ready to burst into a chorus of " Olé olé, olé olá, que mi Colombia va a ganar!" (roughly translated: Colombia is going to win) at a moment's notice. The best fans we've encountered so far, they fill the impressive 69,000-seater Estadio Nacional de Brasilia with noise and colour from well before kick-off until the final whistle. One fan in a Carlos Valderrama wig and face paint is so overcome with emotion that he cries uncontrollably, having what appears to be a religious experience.
Built from scratch in the 1960s to serve as the county's new capital, Brasilia could scarcely be more different from Belo Horizonte. Designed by famed urban planner Lucio Costa and influential architect Oscar Niemeyer, it's a city of expansive boulevards, modernist landmarks and wide-open spaces, eschewing an overt downtown area in favour of spread-out neighbourhood drags that make me think of LA. It's on one of these drags that we get to know Bruce, a distant relative of a friend, who has kindly offered to show us around. As well as being the consummate host, Bruce is also in the process of trying to become a fully fledged Hell's Angel, and he has us rapt with stories of Brasilia's biker gangs and insights into a world that had hitherto seemed quasi-mythical, all over a creamy stew served in a hollowed-out pumpkin and local micro-brews featuring a comely she-devil on the label. We wind up the night drinking Jack Daniel's and listening to Hell's Angels' anthems by Ski King at Bruce's bike garage.
God may or may not play football, but when it comes to having a good time in Brazil, the devil is in the detail.