So near… Frustrated Belgium rues what might have been

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BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Belgians tasted bitterness in their beer on Tuesday after their dreams of a first World Cup final were ended by the narrowest of margins by their bigger French neighbors.

Soccer Football – World Cup – Semi-Final – France v Belgium – Brussels, Belgium – July 10, 2018. Belgium fans react as they watch the broadcast of the World Cup semi-final match between France and Belgium in the fan zone. REUTERS/Yves Herman

“I feel ill,” said Denis Backaert, 34, after watching France prevail 1-0 in the tightest of semi-final encounters between two sharp sides in St. Petersburg.

“I’ve been dreaming for about a month,” Backaert, who works in logistics, said at an outdoor screening in Brussels. “And against France, too, that’s so frustrating … I can’t bear it.”

“It was close. Both sides played very well,” said economics student Alpha Omba. “It’s just a shame. There was nothing in it.”

Soccer Football – World Cup – Semi Final – France v Belgium – Saint Petersburg Stadium, Saint Petersburg, Russia – July 10, 2018 Belgium fan looks dejected after the match REUTERS/Toru Hanai

Like most of the country of 11 million, he was still proud of the team’s performance at the World Cup, stunning Brazil in the quarter-final and putting recent disappointments behind it as Spanish coach Roberto Martinez galvanized a diverse group of millionaire club stars into a highly motivated unit.

Prime Minister Charles Michel tweeted: “Bravo, Red Devils, for your performances and for having thrilled us all the way to the semi-finals.”

“We’d like to have got to the final,” said Omba, 18. “But we’ve done very well.”

Like Martinez himself, he now wants the team to try and win Saturday’s battle for third place against either England or Croatia, who play their semi-final on Wednesday. Many fans and players pay little attention to the third-place playoff but for Belgium, to win it would go one better than an earlier “golden generation” who lost both the semi-final and playoff in 1986.

Sophie Franssen, a 31-year-old banking assistant, confessed she was not a big soccer fan but felt the tournament had lifted the mood of the country and brought its often fractious French- and Dutch-speakers, as well as immigrant communities, together.

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“It’s very good for Belgium,” she said. “We’re all behind one flag, we’re all behind one team.

“It’s a pity. Next time maybe.”

For sports science student Laura De Lange, 20, it was a story of failing to take chances from superior possession: “We really believed, after Brazil we thought we’d beat the French and get to the final and we’re really disappointed,” she said.

But she said, this was Belgium, where the beer flows well and people look out for each other: “Among us Belgians, we support each other massively. We lost, but we’ll still party.”

As for who they will be backing come Sunday, when France will face either Croatia or ancient rivals England, some in Belgium admit that, for all their closeness to French culture, especially in the French-speaking south, it will be hard to cheer for Tuesday’s victors in the “Asterix vs Tintin” derby.

“I don’t mind,” said student Alpha Omba. “As long as the French don’t win.”

Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Hugh Lawson

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