LILLE, France (AP) Belgium won’t be lacking for support when it takes on Wales in the quarterfinals of the European Championship as it tries to make the final four in a major competition for the first time since the 1986 World Cup.
[ MORE: Klinsmann to take England job? ]
The game on Friday takes place in the northern French city of Lille, which is just 10 kilometers or so from the Belgian border. Fans of the team have already turned up in droves in the city for Euro 2016 games in Lille, and nearby Lens.
Local fans should also swell their ranks both in and out of the Stade Pierre-Mauroy. For two of the Belgium’s players, Eden Hazard and Divock Origi, it will be homecoming of sorts. Both started their professional careers at the local club Lille.
[ MORE: England’s future in ruins ]
Wales’ boisterous fans will do their best to compensate, no doubt. Wales is looking to go one further than its previous best appearance in a major tournament. Back in 1958, it lost its quarterfinal match to Brazil to a solitary goal from a young Pele.
“We are very confident at the moment,” the team’s star forward, Gareth Bale, said after Wales ground out a 1-0 victory over Northern Ireland in Saturday’s last-16 game. “You don’t get to the quarterfinals of a major tournament by luck.”
That victory followed two wins in the group stage, to Slovakia and Russia, which secured the team top spot in Group B and entry into what appears to be the easier side of the knockout draw. The winner of the match will take on either Poland or Portugal in the semifinals.
Wales coach Chris Coleman said he was impressed with how his team stood up against teams with very diverse playing styles.
“The three wins out of four we had, we had to win differently. That’s a good sign for any team,” said Coleman, who spoke of “an ugly win” after the Northern Ireland game.
“We showed another side of our game, it wasn’t pretty,” he conceded.
Wales and Belgium know each other well. They were in the same qualifying groups for the 2014 World Cup and for Euro 2016. The score is equal – one win apiece and two draws.
One concern for Wales has centered on captain Ashley Williams, who injured his shoulder against Northern Ireland. However, he’s expected to be fit to start.
Coleman’s counterpart, Marc Wilmots, has his own worries too.
And two days after leading Belgium in its 4-0 routing of Hungary, Hazard skipped Tuesday’s training with a muscle problem, but Wilmots said the winger “will be 100 percent, no problem” for Friday’s game.
Hazard and Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne were instrumental in Belgium’s return to form following an opening 2-0 defeat to Italy. Since then, Belgium has beaten Ireland, Sweden and Hungary with an aggregate score of 8-0.
The ambition is high.
“We are only nine days away from the final,” De Bruyne said. “Now we want to stay until the end.”