Belgium 1 – Wales 1 – Raving before Rio
It has become something of a popular trend in recent years to sneer at international football, with many people keen to show just how much of a super-fan of their club they are by complaining endlessly about the international break. It’s true that it can be frustrating, especially for Wales supporters who often see their players from Real Madrid and Manchester United replaced by those from Burnley and Cheltenham Town due to mysterious ‘injuries’ in the week before the games. However, it should not be forgotten that international football has the ability to produce joy on a level far beyond any club. On a cold and rainy night in Brussels, that is exactly what it did.
It’s fair to say that the majority of the Wales fans that made the relatively short trip to Belgium had done so for a good time rather than any hopes of anything other than a fairly sizeable defeat. With the Belgian side containing a huge array of star names and the Welsh side containing Simon Church, on paper it was the biggest international mismatch since the Russian invasion of Georgia. One bar in the centre of Brussels could be heard to chant “We’re gonna lose 10 – 0!” on Sunday night, with plenty of suggestions that this could be the score by half time.
With our inevitable demolition a couple of days away (bookmakers 888sport had Belgium as low as 1/10), we made sure that the days before the game were used wisely, soaking up the culture of the Belgian nation. Naturally, this generally meant getting as drunk as possible as early as possible, such is the unwritten rule of the away fan. One Wales fan took this to the extreme the night before the game, deciding that it would be a good idea to go crowd surfing in the middle of a packed bar. However, one crucial part of his plan was missing, remembering to tell anyone. As such, he climbed up on a table, leapt into the air like a majestic drunken salmon, missed the crowd completely, spilled several pints of beer everywhere and smashed his face on a bar stool, a look of utter confusion on his face that his master-plan had not succeeded.
In addition to sampling the finest (or to be more honest, cheapest) beer that a country has to offer, visiting the local football stadiums is also a standard part of an international away trip. In Bulgaria we had successfully managed to get inside the grounds of CKSA and Levski Sofia without much hassle, and I was confident we could repeat the trick at Anderlecht. After browsing the impressive and extremely purple club shop, one of the group found an open door that was definitely not meant to be open. We were in. After wandering aimlessly around the stadium and into the middle of a wedding reception, we discovered a huge wine tasting event that was taking place in the corporate area of the ground. It would have been rude not to mix with the locals, who almost certainly noticed that unlike the rest of the crowd we were not Belgian, rich or wearing suits.
After a couple of photos in the executive boxes and smiling and waving politely at the locals, we decided to see if we could get onto the pitch. We walked down the stairs to go back through the door into the club shop, only to discover that it had been locked. Worse still, trying the door handle resulted in it coming off in the hand of the individual who I will not name, for fear of him being given a three year banning order for violence against rival doors. After a few minutes of wondering how long we’d be stuck in the depths of Anderlecht’s ground before we were discovered or turned to cannibalism, we managed to escape through a pitch black underground car park.
This escape was closely followed by another success, an open tunnel leading to the pitch! We walked out onto the turf congratulating ourselves on being the sneakiest people in the whole of Belgium, before an angry shout from a guard was followed by an angry dog. It turned out that we may not have been stealthy ninjas after all, and we legged it back the way we came before any of us could be turned into dog food.
After that near dog experience we kept well away from all football stadiums until the day of the game, arriving at the stadium shortly before kick off due to our coach driver going the wrong way down several one way streets and crashing into as many things as he could find. The ineptitude of the driver was such that I feared he may have taken us to a One Direction concert instead of the game, but finally stumbling across thousands of partying Belgians was all the reassurance we needed. Our hosts had qualified for the World Cup on Friday night, and the scenes of celebration both inside and out of the ground were something that had to be seen to be believed.
The atmosphere inside the ground before the game had begun was one of the noisiest I have ever seen, I can only compare it to the immediate aftermath of when I witnessed Borussia Dortmund’s miraculous 3 – 2 comeback victory over Malaga. Whole sections of the ground were holding an actual rave, while conga lines stretched around the outskirts of the pitch. They did not qualify in either 2010 or 2006, but not only have they qualified for Rio, they are many pundits outside tip to take home the trophy. After they respected the Welsh anthem with loud and sustained clapping, they produced a deafening version of their own national anthem which was enough to send chills down the spine of even the most cynical of the followers in the away end.
The match kicked off and we waited for the inevitable beating to materialise. But in a turn of events even more unexpected than attending an Anderlect wine tasting, Wales were actually playing well, more than matching their hugely talented hosts. While much of the possession was within our own half as we desperately avoided giving Lukaku the ball, it was hugely promising stuff from the side that had recently been demolished by Serbia on a night where it looked like Billericay Town would give us a game, never mind Belgium.
Welsh confidence grew so much that every touch of the ball was greeted with an “ole” less than half an hour into the contest. Not even the fact that the person in front of me clearly thought he was a commentator rather than a fan could ruin the moment, as he helpfully turned round every ten seconds to inform us “We’ve got a corner”, “Belgium have got a throw in”. Cheers for that, Andy Gray.
Belgium did show some moments of class in the first half, but Welsh determination combined with some poor finishing and the fact that their job was already done meant that the game headed into injury time before the break with the score level. With the half-time whistle only seconds away, Wales broke into the box, only for Simon Church to seemingly be brutally assaulted by a Belgian defender. He should have been looking at jail time rather than just a penalty, but the referee was in no mood to ruin the home supporters party. It looked a clear penalty at the time and having seen the highlights I still believe it should have been given. It was stupid defending from Belgium anyway, as everyone knows that the best way of preventing Simon Church from scoring is to simply let him shoot.
The Welsh side were applauded off as heroes at half time for their efforts, while the Belgian fans were treated to the sight of a number of Brazilian dancers and some pretty bizarre singing from a man that was presumably famous. The difference between the two sides was shown after ten minutes of the second half, as both managers made substitutions. Chris Coleman replaced James Collins with James Wilson, while his counterpart replaced Nacer Chadli with Eden Hazard. When it comes to Welsh football, strength in depth refers to having plenty of your pint left.
The introduction of the Chelsea midfield genius lifted the home supporters further, whose incredible noise had began to dampen down just a little as they became increasingly frustrated by the heroic Welsh efforts. Craig Bellamy had run himself into the ground on his final appearance for Wales as a player, he will surely return as manager one day, following in the footsteps of close friend and Welsh legend Gary Speed. His effort was replicated by everyone in a Wales shirt, but finally the inevitable did materialise and Belgium took the lead after 65 minutes. Lukaku has been on a fine run of goalscoring this season, but he had to settle for an assist on this occasion, setting up Kevin De Bruyne to sweep past Wayne Hennessey. The Wales keeper had been on magnificent form all night, with a string of saves which looked impossible, including one particularly impressive stop from a heavily deflected shot that looked certain to sneak in, only for the Yeovil Town goalkeeper to somehow turn it away.
So, 1 – 0 to Belgium and presumably the opening of the floodgates. Belgium fans celebrated wildly, with another conga line forming and plenty of pyro being ignited in areas all over the stadium. The Wales end remained defiant, with Men of Harlech and Calon Lan both booming out of the away end on regular occasions, but now it really was in hope rather than expectation. While Belgium did look as though they may add to their lead, Wales looked superb on the break, creating a number of good chances and having another good shout for a penalty turned down.
Just minutes left now, and it looked as if we would be going home with a respectable 1 – 0 defeat. The Belgium fans were preparing to party, with Brazil flags waving and chants of “Rio here we come” booming around the ground. But the problem with any party is it can be ruined in an instant, usually be a crying girl sitting outside a nightclub holding her shoes. However this time it was Wales who would ruin the moment, as Craig Bellamy ensured that his final moments in the shirt of his country would be just as memorable as so many before this night.
He played an incisive ball to the in-form Aaron Ramsey, who, despite the close range, faced an extremely difficult angle, somehow he was able to turn the ball into the net, creating absolute pandemonium in the away end. It was one of those goals that you can’t believe actually happened, looking up for a moment expecting to see the referee pointing for a foul or the linesman waving a flag. Neither came. We had actually an equaliser away from home against one of the best teams in Europe, if not the world.
The Wales fans descended into what can only be described as absolute carnage, with piles of bodies all over the place. It was if an earthquake had struck Brussels, with people flying absolutely everywhere. Over seats, down the stairs, on top of each other, I’d be surprised if more than 10% of the away end was still able to stand following the goal, it was the biggest celebration I have been a part of as a Wales fan, including the winner against Italy at the Millennium Stadium. All the years of near misses, heartbreak and humiliating defeats to countries that didn’t even exist a couple of years ago were wiped away in a moment.
Most goal celebrations end after a couple of minutes, but the Wales fans were in no mood to stop. The rest of the game was a complete blur, if people had behaved this way in the street instead of a football stadium they would have been sent to a secure mental unit. We even had a chance to win the game in the final moments, I think thousands of Wales fans would still be in Heysel now if the corner we won moments after the goal had been turned into a winner.
There were to be no further goals, but it certainly felt like a win. The goal had been special, but the minutes following the game will live with me forever. As the Belgian squad did a lap of honour to celebrate going to Brazil, a series of hardcore rave songs were played, with the Wales end looking like Ibiza at 4am. A fan stood at the top of the stand wearing only a pair of pink pants, dancing like a maniac and hugging people in a way which would certainly be illegal anywhere other than at a football match. The party went on and on and on, with supporters swinging from the side of the stand and jumping up and down on the extremely small fence at the front of the top tier. It was complete madness, and the travelling support loved every second of it. Scotland winning against Croatia meant that we had actually moved down a place in the group, but it felt like we had just beaten Brazil 5 – 0 in the World Cup final.
Fans from both sides slowly melted away into the night, a truly memorable occasion that will long be remembered by Belgian and Welsh alike. The Wales fans were clapped out of the away end, with home supporters begging to swap scarves and shirts on the Metro leading back to the city centre. Apart from one man and a dog at Anderlecht the Belgians had been hugely welcoming for the entire trip, and I will not be alone in wishing them all the best in Brazil next year. They created the best atmosphere I have seen from an international side, and will surely win many more friends when they arrive in Rio.
I headed to the airport for my early morning flight back to Britain, with numerous Wales fans looking dazed, confused and proud as they waited to cram themselves into the three inches of legroom provided by RyanAir and head home. Proudest of all were the parents of Harry Wilson, the 16-year-old Liverpool player who made his debut in the dying moments of the game, the youngest individual ever to wear the shirt of Wales, taking the record which had previously been held by a certain Gareth Bale. While he didn’t have time to fully shine, he looks to have a big future ahead of him, and could well turn out to be another shining light for the Welsh team.
The last words spoken to me before returning home were from a Belgium fan, who approached a group of Wales supporters to ask: “You guys came all the way from the UK just to watch your team? You’re crazy men! Do you ever win anything?!” Following your country away will often seem crazy to an outsider, especially the absolute mayhem that followed us securing 5th place and a fairly meaningless point, but being privileged enough to experience nights like this one in Brussels means it doesn’t really matter if Wales don’t qualify for another World Cup for another 100 years. We’ve already won.