Lille (France) (AFP) – Swarms of Belgian fans made the short trip across the border into France on Friday ahead of their side’s Euro 2016 quarter-final against Gareth Bale’s Wales in Lille.
Barely 12,000 Belgian fans and a similar number of Wales supporters have tickets for the game at the 50,000-capacity Stade Pierre-Mauroy in Lille where the two will decide who plays Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal in a semi-final next Wednesday.
But the Belgian Football Federation said more than 100,000 supporters were expected to make the short drive to the northern French city, situated just 17 kilometres (10 miles) across the frontier.
“I am one of the lucky ones, I have a ticket!” one Belgian fan, who had travelled from Antwerp by car and then train, told AFP as he made his way to Lille Flanders station to catch the metro to the ground.
The centre of Lille was a sea of fans clad in the red, yellow and black of Belgium. Wales fans were also present by the central Grand Place, albeit enormously outnumbered.
“We knew there would be a lot of Belgians, but not as many as this,” said James, who had come from Swansea for the match.
“But we are all drinking beer together and having a good time, that’s the main thing.”
Supporters from both sides mixed in a friendly atmosphere, kicking footballs around, dancing the conga and singing.
Belgians everywhere joined the Welsh in singing “Don’t Take Me Home”, the ditty started by Wales fans that has effectively become one of the unofficial anthems for all supporters at the competition.
“It will almost be a home game for us and that is an extra motivation,” Belgium captain Eden Hazard, who spent seven years at Lille before moving to Chelsea in 2012, said on the eve of the match.
Bale is leading Wales into their best international campaign since they reached the 1958 World Cup quarter-final.
“I think it is fair to say it could be the biggest ever game for Wales, especially during my time and recent times,” the Real Madrid star declared ahead of the game starting at 1900 GMT.
– Defensive worries –
Belgium suffered a big blow when defender Jan Vertonghen was ruled out of the rest of the tournament with an ankle injury. The Tottenham Hotspur defender, 29, tore ligaments in his left ankle in a freak training accident on Thursday and could be sidelined for two months.
Barcelona centre-back Thomas Vermaelen had already been ruled out of the game due to suspension, while Belgium captain Vincent Kompany and fellow defenders Nicolas Lombaerts and Dedryck Boyata were injured before the tournament.
Coach Marc Wilmots can however call on Hazard, who returned to training on Thursday for the first time since suffering a knock in the 4-0 last-16 win over Hungary on Sunday.
With Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne and Michy Batshuayi, who is on the verge of a move from Marseille to Chelsea, Wilmots still has one of the strongest attacks at Euro 2016. Vertonghen could be replaced by Jordan Lukaku, the 21-year-old younger brother of Romelu.
Belgium start as favourites but Wales won their last encounter with Bale scoring the decisive goal in a 1-0 win in qualifying for France in Cardiff last year.
Bale said it was “my most important Welsh goal” that “gave us belief that we can take on and beat the big teams.”
Wales manager Chris Coleman has warned Belgium to expect “a hell of a game”.
“They’ll play the way they play. They play with imagination, they’ve got pace and power. We’ll play the way we play,” said Coleman.
“When it’s time to defend, we’ll defend with our lives and when it’s time to attack, we’ll attack with our lives. If we do that, Belgium will be in for a hell of a game.”
The winners play Portugal, who beat Poland 5-3 in a penalty shootout in Marseille on Thursday after their quarter-final finished 1-1.
Germany take on Italy in the third quarter-final on Saturday with the victors going into a semi-final against France or giantkillers Iceland, who clash in Paris on Sunday.
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