June 28, 2018 / 2:18 PM / 5 months ago

Fans make cross-border trek for England, Belgium showdown

GDANSK, Poland/KALININGRAD, Russia (Reuters) - Coachloads of English and Belgian soccer fans crossed from Poland into the Russian Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad on Thursday to watch a showdown between their World Cup teams for first place in their group.

Soccer Football - World Cup - Group G - England vs Belgium - Kaliningrad Stadium, Kaliningrad, Russia - June 28, 2018 Belgium fan outside the stadium before the match REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

Many fans are using the Polish city of Gdansk, 160 km (100 miles) from Kaliningrad, as their base for the match because it is better served by international flights and hotel rooms are less expensive.

Anticipated long hold-ups at the border did not materialize, fans who made the journey said, although some supporters had to ditch their rental cars at the Polish side after discovering they were not allowed to drive them into Russia.

Once in Kaliningrad, fans piled into the main square and happily mingled with rival supporters and curious locals, with no sign of the tension that has marred matches involving England fans during past international competitions.

The threat of trouble might have been partly defused by the fact that both England and Belgium have already secured spots in the last 16, leaving little riding on the outcome of Thursday’s match except the right to top the group.

There was no noticeable police presence around the main square, creating a relaxed atmosphere that had good humored fans dancing, singing and exchanging photos.

Belgium Red Devils supporters decked out in devilish masks and face paint were particularly popular as locals pushed their children to have their photograph taken with the sinister looking fans.

At nearby Pobedy Park — Russian for Victory Park — many England supporters gathered, lining the walls with flags, but again security was low key and the atmosphere friendly.

In a tweet, British police said: “There remains a good atmosphere between England and Belgian fans and no incidents were seen or reported overnight. We hope this remains and all fans have a safe and enjoyable night!”

CROSSING BORDERS

One English fan said it took him just 30 minutes to cross the border, with no queues, although there was a 90-minute wait at the Polish side at around midday.

Both sides’ fans used the waiting time to chant, wave flags and share beers with each other.

Their journey took them out of the European Union into a country that has very different regulations.

“We’d actually hired a car in Poland and thought we can take it over the border, but we can’t,” said Lee Lane, an England supporter based in the United States.

He said after realizing the problem he had managed to make a late booking with a tour company that was transporting him to Kaliningrad.

Another fan, Pierre Benker from the Belgian town Sankt Vith, hired a car but had to leave it at a car park on the border when he discovered he could not cross.

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He had arranged a lift on a bus that was traveling from Bruges, Belgium, and, with eight hours to go before the 1800 GMT kick-off, he was optimistic he would make it.

Kaliningrad is part of Russia, but it lies outside Russian territory, sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania. Originally part of Germany’s East Prussia province, it was absorbed into the Soviet Union at the end of World War Two.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Soviet republic of Lithuania — the physical link between Russia became and Kaliningrad - became an independent state and Kaliningrad found itself cut off from Russia.

Additional reporting by Anita Kobylinska and Michael Holden; Editing by Christian Lowe and Catherine Evans

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