Wrapped in red dragon flags and wearing the jerseys of their history-making heroes, Wales fans descended on this southern French city to see their national soccer team in its first-ever European Championship semifinal on Wednesday.
For supporters of opponent Portugal this is a familiar experience, having also made the last four at Euro 2012 and contested the 2004 final.
But generations of Wales fans who have waited a lifetime to see their team in a major tournament are now just one game from a final at the Stade de France on Sunday. The last time Wales played on the international stage, at the 1958 World Cup, was before many of the supporters flooding into this southeastern French city were born.
“Everyone at home is talking about football _ nothing else matters at the moment,” 36-year-old Richard Morris said. “It’s the best experience I’ve ever had.”
Morris has only missed one of his team’s five games in France _ the last-16 win over Northern Ireland _ but he was there in Lille on Friday as Wales stunned Belgium with a 3-1 win in the quarterfinals.
“We knew we had it in us but we didn’t think we’d get here in such style,” Morris said. “There’s no egos in the team, everyone plays for each other.”
The last time a British team reached the semifinal of a soccer tournament was England at Euro ’96, but the larger neighbors have been truly upstaged by Wales at the 2016 continental championship.
England went home more than a week ago after losing to Iceland in the round of 16. That was good news for Paul Williams, a 21-year-old Wales fan who secured his semifinal ticket from an Englishman desperate to offload it at face value.
“It’s the year of the underdogs so hopefully it continues,” said Williams, referring to Leicester City winning the Premier League. “It eases the pressure a bit because you know you aren’t expected to win.”
In Wales, a nation of 3 million where rugby usually dominates, the round ball rather than the oval ball is now the center of attention.
“It’s nice to see everyone getting behind the football,” said Williams, who lives in the northern town of Bangor. “It’s unheard of really back home.”
Wales’s astonishing run to the last four has been masterminded by Chris Coleman, who was hired amid the grief following coach Gary Speed’s death in 2011.
Speed’s father, Roger, will be at the Stade de Lyon on Wednesday night to see if Wales can reach a final against either France or Germany.
“I’m very, very proud,” Roger Speed told the BBC. “I know all the lads and they think about him (Gary) all the time _ let’s do it for Speedo … he’d be as proud as we are.”
The team received a good luck message from Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne.
“Throughout the whole championship, you have set an inspiring example of teamwork and sportsmanship and I have no doubt that in this latest game you will continue to give your country even greater cause for pride,” the Prince of Wales said.
“Your historic achievements have already earned the support not only of Wales, but of the whole United Kingdom, and I hope you will know just how much we are all willing you on to further success.”