So near yet so far for Belgium

Belgium fans react to their team's defeat after the Russia 2018 World Cup semi-final between France and Belgium at the Saint Petersburg Stadium. (AFP Photo)

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 neighbours.

"I feel ill," said Denis Backaert, 34, after watching France prevail 1-0 in the tightest of semifinal 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."

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 quarterfinal and putting recent disappointments behind it as Spanish coach Roberto Martinez galvanised 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 semifinals."

"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 semifinal 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 semifinal and playoff in 1986.

Sophie Franssen, a 31-year-old banking assistant, confessed she was not a big football 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.

"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." 

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So near yet so far for Belgium

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