GDANSK/GRZECHOTKI (Reuters) - Thousands of England and Belgium soccer fans flocked into Russia’s western enclave of Kaliningrad on Thursday, ahead of the final Group G World Cup clash between the two football-mad nations.
Around 50 coaches packed with fans had crossed the border from Poland by midday, its border agency said, as many fans had chosen Poland’s historic Baltic Sea port as a base due to sky high prices in Russia.
England fans predicted there would be few surprises in store as many of the Belgian stars play their club football in the English Premiership, including Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Romelu Lukaku (Manchester United) and Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City).
“I think their team probably has better players than ours, but it’s a team game, so we’ll see what happens,” said Michael Mitchell from the northern English city of Newcastle.
Whichever side comes second would play two of the three knockout rounds to the final in the comfort of Moscow — where Belgium have their camp — whereas the winner faces thousands of air miles taking in Rostov-on-Don, Kazan and St. Petersburg.
Both sides have already qualified for the next round and will want to avoid injuries ahead of the knockout rounds.
“No tension, nice, easy draw,” predicted Ian Hughes, 39, from the English Midlands city of Birmingham.
“The thing is all the players they know each other, because they all play in Premier League,” he said.
“So there will be 22 players, maybe 16, who play for four English clubs: Tottenham, Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City. They all play for merely four teams, they are best friends. They won’t hurt each other, you’d think.”
Fans from both sides passed the time ahead of the game in friendly fashion, roaring football chants, waving their flags and even sharing a beer or two with their rivals.
Not all fans were enjoying the trip, however.
“The tournament organisation, it is a Russian competition, but there’s a lot of tourists and supporters in Gdansk. It could have been organised a little bit better,” said Pierre Benker from the Belgian town of Sankt Vith.
Others complained about sky-high prices on the Russian side and said they had chosen Gdansk because it has a well-developed hotel network and can be easily reached with budget airlines.
“When we first got our tickets and looked at the hotels, they wanted like 1,500 euros for a double room, one night. So that wasn’t an option. A week before the prices were 50 pounds per room,” Mitchell said. Reuters was not able to independently verify the hotel prices.
Most supporters who booked flights and buses soon after the draw was held on Dec. 1 enjoyed a smooth journey, but others like Lee Lane were forced to suddenly change their plans.
“The reason is we’d actually hired a car in Poland and thought we can take it over the border, but we can’t,” said Lane, an England supporter based in the United States. He was travelling to Thursday’s game with a tour company instead.
By Pawel Goraj, Anita Kobylinska; Editing by Jon Boyle