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Fever pitch fills Land of My Fathers

By Neil Robinson

LONDON (Reuters) - Red-shirted fans scrambling for tickets and planes, trains and automobiles to the match, mysterious murals of soccer heroes suddenly appearing like a Celtic Banksy on the loose, and record-breaking TV audience figures.

Wales, a nation of just three million people which is usually known worldwide for its love of rugby union, is getting very excited about the biggest match in the country's soccer history in the semi-finals of Euro 2016 in France on Wednesday.

Only people of retirement age remember the last time Wales qualified for major finals in 1958. Whilst neighbour and fierce sporting rivals England crashed out in the second round, Wales have surprisingly made it to the last four to play Portugal.

The Welsh are determined to enjoy the historic moment.

On Tuesday the 20,000 free tickets to watch the game on a 30-metre TV screen at Cardiff's Principality Stadium (formerly Millennium Stadium) were snapped up in just 90 minutes.

The fan zone has been moved from a car park to cope with the growing audience. Other fan parks have been set up around the country to cater for supporters seeking a party atmosphere.

But Welsh supporters who are lucky enough to have tickets for the match in Lyon have been battling with a last-minute logistical nightmare.

A strike by French air traffic control led to the cancellation of more than 200 flights, lobby group Airlines for Europe said, prompting a desperate scramble by supporters to reach Lyon by other means.

The Football Supporters' Federation Cymru said fans were "doing all sorts" to cross the English Channel.

"All the ferries are booked now and the [Eurotunnel] is full. Everything is full," Vince Alm, of the federation, said.

RECORD AUDIENCE

The only alternative is to watch the game on television where viewing figures are expected to eclipse the record of 1.27 million who watched Friday's 3-1 quarter-final victory over Belgium, the highest TV audience in the country for live sport, the BBC said.

And then there are the unusual murals which have been appearing on a derelict nightclub in the village of Porth in south Wales.

The paintings, which have been compared to those of anonymous England-based graffiti artist Banksy, feature leading players like Gareth Bale and Joe Ledley and have popped up at various times throughout the tournament.

Jason Jones, from Porth, told Walesonline: "Nobody is letting on who is doing them. There are people online who know who the artist is but are not saying."

The faces of Wales' players are now every bit as familiar as those of the rugby players like Gareth Edwards, Phil Bennett and JPR Williams, whose heroics for the all-conquering Wales team of the 1970s brought them superstar status at home.

Long retired, they have been frequently asked how the footballers' exploits compare with those of Wales' greatest rugby team.

"I'm so proud of them," said Bennett. "I’ve laughed, I've cried, I've cheered, I've lost my voice. I've gone through all the emotions."

Perhaps the most nervous person in the county, however, is the anonymous punter who staked 500 pounds ($651.80) on Wales winning the competition at 8-1. He or she is now just three or so hours away from collecting 40,000 pounds ($52,144.00).

($1 = 0.7671 pounds)

(Editing by Adrian Warner)

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