Paris, France – Café El Emir in Paris smelled of fresh mint and hookah smoke. Behind the counter, Samy was pouring mint tea for customers who had trickled in to watch Tunisia take on France in the World Cup 2022.
Before the match, he was not confident Tunisia would pull through.
“This is going to be Tunisia’s last match of the World Cup,” Samy told Al Jazeera. “The odds are stacked against us.”
Samy’s conclusion before the game: “C’est chaud (It doesn’t look good).”
And he was right. Tunisia stunned reigning champions France 1-0 but were still knocked out after Australia beat Denmark in the other group match.
El Emir had broadcast all of Tunisia’s World Cup matches, serving tea and hookahs to a packed house of Tunisian fans who gathered in front of two flat-screen TVs inside and on the terrace.
The café sits smack in the middle of Paris’s Belleville neighbourhood, which is the place to visit for authentic fish couscous, rose-flavoured pastries or other Tunisian specialities in the French capital.
For decades, Belleville has been home to thousands of Tunisians in France. On Wednesday, they came out in droves to support their home country against their adopted one.
More than a football match
The crowd at El Emir was diverse – old and young, men and women, speaking French and Arabic and sometimes both at the same time.
Halil, 25, said he arrived in France from Tunis a few months ago. He admitted it was strange watching his new home take on the country of his birth but said he knew which team got his support.
“I like France, but I’m rooting for Tunisia,” Halil told Al Jazeera. “Tunisia is my team.”
France is home to the largest Tunisian expat community – at least 187,000 Tunisia-born people live in the country and even more French nationals are descendants of Tunisian immigrants. A lot of people watching the match at El Emir had ties to both countries, which made this match a bit peculiar.
“This match goes beyond just sport,” said Tunisia fan Mohammed. “We have a shared history, economic ties, cultural ties.”
Mohammed came to France from Tunisia aged five and said he still feels strongly connected to his birthplace.
A rollercoaster of emotions
While many fans at El Emir seemed pretty relaxed as the match began, they quickly started inching forward in their seats and wringing their hands.
Tunisia dominated early on and the crowd loved it. They burst into singing and chanting: “We’ll play and we’ll win.”
When hometown hero Wahbi Khazri scored the second-half goal, the fans on El Emir’s terrace were overjoyed. The whole place exploded.
“This is Tunisia’s game!” exclaimed Mohammed Messaoudi. “I wasn’t sure at first, but now we have it in the bag.”
That mood did not last though, because even though Tunisia were winning, it wasn’t enough to progress. Several people started watching the Australia-Denmark match on their phones.
All hope seemed lost when Antoine Griezmann scored a goal in injury time, and El Emir’s terrace started emptying as disappointed fans poured out. A few minutes later, those who remained exploded into cries of joy. The goal was ruled out. Tunisia had won.
“We did it. We won,” they shouted.
It’s the first time Tunisia has defeated France in a World Cup, an upset that will likely go down in history. But for many Tunisian fans in Paris, the victory is tinged with disappointment.
“It’s a historic victory, we beat the world champions,” said 43-year-old Tunisian fan Chakib Ellili. “But it’s still a bit bittersweet since we’re not moving forward. We missed our chance when we lost to Australia in our second match, but we’re very proud of our team.”
Mohammed, the 29-year-old Tunisian who has lived in Paris since he was five, said he would support other Arab teams like Morocco or Saudi Arabia moving forward.
Samy and his coworker Taoufik at El Emir said their decision was easy. They’re cheering on France.
“I’m a Tunisia fan, but I’m also a France fan,” said Taoufik. “Always have been, always will be.”