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'Special atmospheres': Inside Belgium's Euro 2020 camp

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International tournaments are all about focus and preparation, and on the morning of Belgium’s opening clash with Russia, Christian Benteke and co. were ready to get their campaign underway. Then everything changed.

“It happened on the day we were playing,” he remembers, speaking to Palace from the training camp in his native Belgium. The incident he is referring to shocked the football world to its core.

As Denmark, roared on by a boisterous home support in Copenhagen, looked to turn the screw on Finland, Christian Eriksen fell to the ground. It was immediately clear something was wrong.

As his teammates formed a protective ring to obscure his distress, and the medical staff administered CPR on the pitch, the footballing world watched in horror.

“We heard the news a couple of hours before we were playing,” Benteke remembers. “We were all so shocked. More than usual, because it happened in our tournament – it’s not like we’re away from football. We’re all involved, so it was a shock.”

What made the uncertainty worse in the Belgian camp were the number of Benteke’s teammates who count Eriksen not only as a teammate, but as a close friend.

“It was very hard for a few of the boys,” Benteke explains. “Rom [Lukaku], Jan [Vertonghen], Toby [Alderweireld] and Nacer [Chadli] all know him from a long time ago. They were very sad.

“But we were all sad because even though we don’t know him personally, he’s still a footballer and he’s still a human being, so it’s news that you really don’t like. Thank God he’s feeling much better now, he’s in a better position. We wish him all the best for his recovery.”

Despite the furore around Eriksen’s condition, there was still an important game to be played. Benteke reveals that the Dane’s condition in hospital ruled out any further postponements in the tournament.

“The hardest thing to do is to focus and stay like a pro,” the forward says. “Obviously we had that news, but we still had to play the game. UEFA didn’t stop the game because two hours before kick-off we heard that he was alive, that he was at the hospital, and that he was doing much better.

“So that’s why they didn’t want to cancel the games.”

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The hardest thing to do is to focus and stay like a pro. We still had to play the game.

Christian Benteke

A few days later and Belgium were in Copenhagen to face Denmark and a Danish crowd determined to create a particularly special atmosphere, defiant in the face of misfortune and fierce in their devotion to their new national heroes.

“That atmosphere was on a different level,” remembers Benteke. “Obviously they wanted to do it for Eriksen, and they were playing at home with all the support. It was special to be honest – it was a special game. We had a tough start but we reacted well.”

Denmark took the lead but Belgium recovered to secure all three points with a 2-1 win. It was another reminder of how important fans are to creating memorable footballing moments.

“It’s really great when we play every game,” says Benteke of the fans’ return. “When we played against Russia the stadium was almost full. When we played against Denmark, obviously you could feel the energy, the difference with the fans.

“It’s great for football and it’s great for the atmosphere that the fans can enjoy live games again.”

Benteke’s experience of different atmospheres poses a different issue for players in the current tournament. Unlike its predecessors, this year’s European Championships is spread across the continent. As well as Belgium’s fixtures in Copenhagen and St Petersburg, their Round of 16 game means a trip to Seville.

“Obviously, when we have to stay for three hours on a plane, then get back in our bubble, then travel again – it’s part of the tournament we won’t miss,” Benteke says. “It would have been easier if we went and stayed in one country, but I think it’s not too bad for us.

“When we travelled to Russia twice it was a three-hour flight, and then Denmark was closer: it was about one and a half hours. It’s not like we had to travel to somewhere like Baku which is much further.”

Staying in COVID bubbles means following strict guidelines for the entirety of the tournament, as well as rigorous testing. It can lead to a stifling, often tedious atmosphere that can undermine a country’s chance of success.

But Benteke says Belgium are approaching it in just the right way: “The camp is really cool. They are doing everything they can to make us feel like we’re home.

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It's not easy being away from the family, but we're surrounded by very professional people.

Christian Benteke

“It’s not easy because we’re away from the family, but we’re surrounded by very good, very professional people every day, so it’s easier to stay in the bubble.”

How, then, do international footballers remain entertained when the final whistle goes and the roar of the crowd is no more?

“We play games – the younger ones play PlayStation, but we play cards,” Benteke reveals. “Or I just chill in my room watching Netflix, watching documentaries or reading books.”

We ask for a Netflix recommendation to keep us going when there’s no football to watch. “I’m watching Elite at the moment,” he laughs. “It’s a Spanish thing – it is quite good.”

A European drama where high-achieving youngsters compete for success – what could be more appropriate? But that’s not to say there is little football to watch.

“I try to watch at least one game from each group,” Benteke says, “because obviously we still have to know what’s going on – especially now we don’t know who we could end up playing against. So we have to be on top of what is happening.

“Italy are looking really strong. You’ve got the Netherlands as well – and us, obviously! But I would say Italy look strong.”

After a tough battle with Portugal, a clash with Italy awaits. Such heavyweight ties are something Benteke says the squad will relish.

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To play there [Wembley] with my country would be really special.

Christian Benteke

“I won’t say we’re scared. At times we play against big nations, so it’s a nice challenge to play against those teams – we love it. Obviously we have a strong group and we believe in each other, so there is no fear.

“The atmosphere here is good. We push each other every day. Obviously you have the 11 starters, but then you’ve got the rest of the boys as well who still have the quality of top, top players. We had a tough start, but we reacted really well.”

Until lining up against the Azzurri on Friday evening, Benteke will try and stay focused on the important things, which for him means family.

“Every day I try and call them,” he says as a point of principle. “I speak with my kids, my parents, my friends. It means I can’t say we’re not in a good condition in terms of the bubble, because they [the staff] are working really hard to make sure that we are good.”

After Portugal, how far Belgium can go is anybody’s guess. With the semi-finals and final at Wembley, Benteke hopes he can accomplish his dream of winning with his country in a stadium with added significance for him.

“It would be really nice [to play at Wembley]. I played one final there already with a club [Aston Villa], so it would be nice to play there with my country. The same for a lot of the boys, because a lot of them played in the Premier League.

“It would be really special.”