Fifa World Cup: Kylian Mbappe makes Les Bleus believe as France fans in Hong Kong raise the roof at Spiga
Rooftop bar in Central is packed with 200 France supporters for thrilling 4-3 win over Argentina that gets pulses racing and prosecco corks popping
“This game is also available in HD,” read the message from Now TV that had obviously been floating around the giant screen at intermittent intervals over the course of the previous 90 minutes.
I expect I was not the only one of the 200 or so people watching who had not been aware of it.
The screen was on the rooftop of Spiga in Central, an open-air oasis for French football fans and it was packed to the rafters, or would have been had there been a roof.
Man Ho from the French Consulate will tell me at half-time that the crowd had been 150-200 for each of France’s group games but under the stifling night air and with everyone jammed in it feels more like 300 are here – and they almost all are here to watch France. It’s a small fraction of what might be a 20,000 strong French community in Hong Kong.
It would have been more. While the anthems are being cued in Kazan, there’s a queue at the doors in Central. Not all of those who were fashionably late for kick-off decide to wait it out, though, and a few groups and the odd straggler head off to find another venue.
Those who do decide to stay might miss the iconic anthem but they are soon rewarded by the team who just sang along to the Marsellaise with Kylian Mbappe beginning his reign of terror by earning a free-kick that Antoine Griezmann sends crashing into the bar.
The crowd respond with hands on heads and a refresher course for anyone who’s ever learned to swear in French.
Soon they are off their feet for another Mbappe solo run, one that ends with cries for a penalty that see the referee point to the spot. Griezmann makes no mistake and 13 minutes in there are a couple of hundred people on a Hong Kong roof that are in dreamland.
“Allez Les Bleus”, rings out if a little unconvincingly. It’s more with hope than expectation as many turn to cigarettes to calm their nerves. They may be 1-0 up but this is Argentina and they have Lionel Messi.
The players seem less nervy, with attack after attack threatening and heart rates here sent rocketing. It had clearly been too much for one young woman who drifted off to sleep in the glow of the giant screen.
And then Argentina score, Angel Di Maria disregarding the balance of play to stun the crowd at Spiga into silence for the most part and enraged outbursts in small pockets. The crowd are back in unison when Diego Maradona is shown on the screen, whistling and jeering the former great.
“We will do this again for the next game,” Man Ho tells me at half-time. “Hopefully.” It doesn’t look good with the first action of the second half resulting in the kind of fluke goal that makes football fans question their life choices.
One fan tries to get a chant going but it falls on deaf ears, everyone too shocked at what they have just seen, with Messi’s shot deflecting in off teammate Gabriel Mercado’s foot past a rooted Hugo Lloris in the French goalmouth. Is this France team destined to disappoint in Russia as they did on home turf in the last European Championship?
The answer to that was emphatic. Benjamin Pavard levelled the scores with a sliced, long-range curling volley that will be hard to better at this World Cup, and for all it was cheered in real-time – and it was – the joy and relief became louder on every replay. Fans turned to one another as if to check they had actually just seen that from the full back.
Paul Pogba, who had been supported throughout in stark contrast to watching Manchester United games, decided to get involved and in a little over 10 minutes, France had gone from 2-1 down to 4-2 up.
Mbappe adds the other two goals to an ever ecstatic French crowd – something that is no doubt playing out in the two other official French pavilions in Shanghai and Beijing.
The fervour becomes more partisan as the clock ticks down. Fouls won are cheered, decisions are questioned, everything Nicolas Otamendi does it met with bile.
The temperature and the tension is getting to everyone. The rosé wine, beer and Aperol Spritz that the staff have busily ferried from the bar can’t cool things, neither can the France branded fans being waved eagerly.
It gets worse before it gets better. Argentina score once more – a couple of cheers in the crowd – for a tense finish. And then after the biggest cheer of the night for Messi hitting the ball straight at Lloris, it’s over.
One man in his Zinedine Zidane shirt from France ’98 – the last time the nation were the champions of the world – has seen it all before. For many of the crowd, closer in age to Kylian Mbappe than the players who lifted the World Cup 20 years ago, this was a night to start believing.