Fifa World Cup final: echoes of Paris as Hong Kong’s French fanzone channels European celebrations a little too much

Packed fanzone in the Kerry Hotel ballroom replicates atmosphere back home while bar is filled with fans of all persuasions, including Croatia supporters

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 July, 2018, 1:13pm
UPDATED : Monday, 16 July, 2018, 1:52pm

Whatever odds you were offered for a World Cup final between France and Croatia, you’d have got even longer odds on Hung Hom being the hottest ticket in town to watch it.

The crowds of France fans around the front entrance of the Kerry Hotel drinking cans and smoking hint otherwise. This is busier than most bars have been but nothing compared to upstairs. Hundreds are queuing to get into the Kerry Hotel ballroom for the Union des Francais de l’Etranger’s facsimile of a fanzone back in France.

The organisers say they had over 2,000 applications but had to cap it at 1,800. Estimates are that more than 1,500 have braved the rain and most of them seem to be trying to get in at the same time. As the non-profit’s volunteers try to maintain order, process new memberships and confirm reservations, those inside are getting their spots around three giant screens. The one closest to the only bars already has a vocal group bouncing in anticipation with an hour to go till kick-off and half an hour until the free-flow begins. It sounds like an away crowd at a football stadium – “Griez-mann, Griez-mann” – there will be voices among the things lost tonight.

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While many are not old enough to remember the last World Cup triumph in any detail they know their way around a vintage France kit. The 1998 version, the one worn when the team last won the World Cup, is out in force: Zidane, Desailly and Lebouef on the backs. There are also Thierry Henry No 12 shirts from 2002, some ’80s retro tops and plenty of current shirts.

Downstairs in the hotel’s foodcourt/bar, a queue edges out of the doors as staff weave past carrying extra chairs. Inside, plenty of tables are reserved while those that are not are crowded. One has the familiar red and white checks of the Croatia shirt, where a handful of Croatians are watching the game.

They are well outnumbered, even in here France shirts and tricolour face paint are everywhere.

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The start of the free-flow is announced and everyone rushes to the bar. There are exactly two Croatia shirts that are not with the Croatian nationals. One fan got his for the semi-final – seemingly from Ladies Market – and is plumping for the Croatian team because he loves an underdog.

Back upstairs the atmosphere is building. Every time the TV cuts to a Croatian, the crowd boo and jeer, part of the pantomime of fandom. Similarly, every time that a France player comes on they go wild.

It’s a sea of red, white and blue. Some people are wearing full football kits. There are tricolours everywhere, in bow ties, in flags worn as capes or skirts and painted on faces.

One fan with a tricolour feather boa takes a megaphone and leads the fans in a call and response.

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Phones, hearts and voices are lifted high for the French anthem. There follows an uneasy silence for the Croatian anthem as everyone awaits kick-off. The team are nervy. The crowd are too. Croatia do the early running and every France clearance, block and tackle is cheered. The mood changes whenever Kylian Mbappe gets the ball, crackling with electricity. Boos and whistles greet Infantino and Putin appearing on screen. Emotions for the twelfth man are turned up to 11.

A sense of anticipation takes over as Antoine Griezmann lines up a free-kick. It’s swung in and in a blur the ball is in the back of the net. Arms and beer fly everywhere as some try to escape the downpour and others raise umbrellas. A chorus of “Seven Nation Army” breaks out.

The joy doesn’t last long. Ivan Perisic equalises to silence the crowd. A half-hearted “Allez Les Bleus” fails to catch hold. Doubt creeps in.

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Hotel staff try to get people to stop standing on tables and chairs, but as soon as they leave it’s back to high vantage points to catch a corner. It comes and goes but a replay catches the attention. Penalty? VAR. A second check. The wait is too much for some and they queue for beers or roll cigarettes. It’s given and that is too much for others as they turn away from Griezmann stepping up. Those with umbrellas at the ready are rewarded as the mosh pit showers itself in beer again. 2-1. Soaked in drink, sweat and still damp from the rain.  

Half-time. The lights come up to add to the sense of theatre, as does people running for the bar, bathroom and a smoke break. Those who stay are politely asked be to quiet and pay attention to the lucky draw under the big screen at the far end of the room. Emotions are too high for those at the back. The room is reminiscent of a music festival in that each screen has a very different vibe.

Plenty are absent as the second half gets under way. They are streaming in through the exit.

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Downstairs, the vibe is way less intense. More screens, albeit smaller, and plenty of sight lines mean no one is missing the action but they are not focused on the same screen. It’s less a shared experience. People coming in have missed a goal.

I attempt to keep up the charade so beloved of sitcoms of being on two dates in one night, but knowing how that ends, I wish the Croatians all the best in my heart. France has my full attention.

Missing a goal is more keenly felt upstairs. People pick up pace as they hear the room, a cheer brings around a full sprint. One fan bemoans to his girlfriend that they have missed two goals. They get back in just for Mandzukic to make it 4-2. There are a nervous 20 minutes left in Moscow. If they are nervous, then they hide it with another impassioned rendition of the national anthem.

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Some fans have their tops off. Some are visibly worse for wear, the ravages of the now ended free-flow.

Many were wise to that and have hoarded beers. Cans are cracked as others fly around the air. The festival vibe is in full flow. Two fans at the front of the screen appear to be either blind drunk, having a spiritual experience or are performance artists.

The screen cuts out. Panic. The fans turn to their left to the far end of the room. The feed’s return a minute later is greeted with a cheer louder than any goal. Cans and beer fly. Songs ring out. People are on the floor. The smell of stale beer fills the air. Time ticks by.

Injury-time brings more songs. The loudest yet. The World Cup is seconds away. Tears join the beer in raining down. People are on tables, on shoulders and surfing over the hands of the crowd. Celebrations are shared from polite high-fives to primal shoving. If the UFE wanted to make a European fan zone then they have done just that, to the bemusement of the hotel staff.

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Soon after the whistle, the screens cut out and are pulled up. The fans will not be seeing their team lift the Cup but they celebrate them winning it. Some dance on tables, one man holds his shoe above his head as he dances with friends. The songs ring out. Some head for the doors, a few putting their empty cans in the bin, others don’t want the night to end.

The party continued downstairs, for them, either in the bar or hanging out of sunroofs. Meanwhile, the clean-up begins.

Postscript: The UFE emailed on Monday morning to report that the hotel will invoice them with a bill for the damage done during the event.