Postcards from the World Cup #3: Mussels, fruity beers and sulky Vertonghen
#3 LEON DE BRUXELLES
CAMBRIDGE CIRCUS, LONDON, WC2H 8AA
The party had to end. The goal feast that had been neatly surmised as the "Dare I say it? Best World Cup So Far?" by one of ITV's Drab Four was scythed in two by a match so turgid that FFT was later discovered at its laptop, mainlining Phil Neville's commentary highlights on YouTube in order to reboot the system. Iran-Nigeria: football euthanasia. Death to the Beautiful Game.
But wait: there's a tried-and-tested method for lifting the gloom! Namely, to get back on the damn horse and ride into town for a cultural shindig with football fans only slightly more pessimistic than England's battle-weary support.
There's no better place than Belgium, home of the mussel/frites combination: the greatest duo since Raoul Lambert and Paul van Himst at Euro 72. That's not to mention a mind-boggling list of beers arriving in all manner of colours and ABV percentages. Farewell sunny South America (see Postcards 1 and 2), hello unremarkable mainland Europe!
Of course, the national identity of this glorious country has endured a hefty kicking in recent times. Most notably in dark-hearted comedy In Bruges, in which Colin Farrell's socially distended character 'Ray' takes a swipe at Belgium's most cultural and picturesque of cities. "Ken, I grew up in Dublin," he sighs. "I love Dublin. If I grew up on a farm, and was [insert your own inappropriate comment here], Bruges might impress me. But I didn't, so it doesn't." Thank god the film wasn't set in Liege.
Luckily, FFT has a sunnier worldview than 'Ray'. Plus, these are interesting times for Belgium's football fan. For once there is an air of pride surrounding their national team, who have been absent from the World Cup for some time. Meanwhile, a large contingent of the Premier League's most highly regarded talent are on display here, including Eden Hazard, Vincent Kompany and, less thrillingly, Marouane Fellaini. Times are good.
Not that you would know it from surveying the tables at Leon de Bruxelles, a smart Belgian restaurant on the outskirts of Soho. Plates overflowing with mussels are being wolfed down while beers are frothed at the bar, but the mood is somewhat downbeat at first: there's hardly a football shirt on display. The 5pm kick-off has dampened any early hopes of international hedonism, with much of the clientele still mentally shuffling their paperwork. "We are perhaps a little more reserved than some of the nations in this World Cup," explains one fan.
Even the appearance of several employees from the Belgian Embassy fails to raise any patriotic fervour – the national anthem is greeted with all the enthusiasm of a holiday maker hearing their Eurostar to Brussels has been delayed by five hours.
When a first-half penalty – cooly dispatched by Algeria's Sofiane Feghouli – puts the Belgians on the back foot, a collective sigh of despair sweeps the restaurant. This is hardly helped by the sight of a Fez-toting conga line dancing around the Estadio Mineirao. Looks like we picked the wrong day to drink with Marc Wilmots' barmy army.
Thank god, then, for the restorative power of beer (and there's plenty of the good stuff here, even fruity ones). With half-time used for heavy refuelling and clocking off time signalled in central London, Leon de Bruxelles begins to heave with football fans, shirts and all, who soon lift the mood with a series of songs and curses, most of which are aimed at sulk-faced defender Jan Vertonghen.
Positivity begins to brim. As with Chelsea, much hope is pinned on Fancy Dan winger Hazard, who is roared on with shouts of "Allez! Allez!" with every flash of Michael Flatley-style footwork. More surprising is the appreciation of some of the lesser-lauded players working in England. Nacer Chadli, while being something of a damp squib at White Hart Lane, is recognised with head-nodding reverence. And when candy floss-haired battering ram Marouane Fellaini bouffants an equaliser, Leon de Bruxelles goes stark-raving potty.
Fans jump on tables, ambassadorial hugs are traded and confused tourists passing outside peer in with a mixture of curiosity and fear as a hundred bellowing Belgians go nutso. As the trick is repeated several moments later, one could easily imagine that Bruges had been named European Cultural Capital, such is the delirium. While not delivering a cacophony as rhythmic as some of their South American rivals, the passion among Belgium fans is pumped.
And all this at a timesheet-denting start time of 5pm – though the better news for Belgium and Leon de Bruxelles is that the country's next fixture against Russia takes place at the weekend. Cambridge Circus will be steeling itself for a heavy celebration, big on fruity booze, football and top-notch bar snacks. Not even 'Ray' could take umbrage at that.
Matt Allen will be endangering his liver in the line of duty for the next month. His aim? To find the best World Cup-themed parties in London. He has a 100% win record, so tweet him details of your shindig and he'll arrive to ensure international glory.