ST PETERSBURG/PARIS (Reuters) – A wave of euphoria swept across France on Tuesday and a nation of ardent soccer fans began dreaming of World Cup glory after Les Bleus defeated Belgium 1-0 to reach the final.
Delirious supporters draped in the Tricolor flag spilled on to Parisian boulevards as the blare of car horns reverberated through the French capital.
In a fan zone outside City Hall on the banks of the River Seine, jubilant supporters embraced and lit smoke flares.
“I’m totally blown away, this is crazy,” said 41-year-old Gilles Rove in Paris’ Belleville neighborhood. “Nobody believed this could happen at the beginning of the World Cup, but this team has really shown something in recent weeks.
“This team gives me goosebumps, even more so than the team of 1998,” he added, in reference to the last time France won the World Cup, on home soil against Brazil 20 years ago.
Tens of thousands of fans poured on to the Champs Elysees as bars, cafes and restaurants enjoyed a bumper evening of revelry after the World Cup equivalent of a local derby, a match between neighbors with a heavy dose of national rivalry and friendly banter flowing in the run-up.
“We’re going to the final, we’re going to the final,” scores chanted in one central Paris bar before breaking out into an impromptu rendition of the La Marseillaise national anthem.
“A Duel Between Friends” France’s Journal du Dimanche had declared, with a cartoon on the front page taken from the comic book “Asterix in Belgium”, when the plucky Gauls encounter a rival tribe from across the border.
Some French fans were already looking forward to a possible final clash against long-time rivals England, who play Croatia in the second semi-final on Wednesday.
“Our unfortunate Belgian cousins were just not quite good enough. But it was Europe which won, and it would be amusing if we were to beat the English,” said 45-year-old Francois Garnier who watched the game near the Eiffel Tower.
In St Petersburg, ecstatic French fans sang their way out of the stadium, relishing the prospect of a final against England or Croatia.
Belgium fans filed quietly out of the arena, but remained proud in defeat after their first semi-final appearance since 1986.
“Today we were a little bit unlucky, but it could have been the both sides (who could win) so we played well. I am happy that I came here and now we will go for the third place,” Belgium fan Patrick Robert Wouters said.
“I am proud of my team,” he added.
France won in front of President Emmanuel Macron, who went down to the players’ dressing-room after the match.
Asked what Macron told the players, Les Bleus young forward Kylian Mbappe told TF1: “He said he would come back for the final, to see us with the cup.”
Additional reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta and Matthias Blamont; Writing by Richard Lough, editing by Ed Osmond