Belgian Delight

Eoin Mc Sweeney assesses Belgium’s chances of success at this summer’s World Cup in Brazil.

Shot after shot rained down on the goal as the Belgian national team tried again and again to break Turkey’s resistance. As the host nation of the UEFA European Championship in 2000, expectation was high that a team that had qualified for five successive World Cups could dent the hopes of various European giants and maybe even lift the Henri Delaunay Trophy themselves. Willed on by a home crowd of 48,000, Belgium were dominating the match and looked to be heading to the quarter-finals of the competition, but then disaster struck. Hakan Sukur scored a goal in each half to leave Belgium third in the group and eliminated from the competition at the first stage. They were the first host nation to exit so early in the competition. On that day, people thought that Belgian football had hit rock bottom, but things only got worse.

Although they competed at the World Cup in South Korea in 2002, they failed to qualify in 2006, making it the first time the country was absent from the World Cup since 1978. They also failed in 2010 and have not played at any of the intervening European Championships. They were 71st in the FIFA World Rankings in 2007, an all-time low, and they lost to Armenia in 2009. Hope was non-existent in what seemed like a dire situation for Belgian football, a nation with a proud footballing past.

Fortunately for the country, and football fans everywhere, the tables have turned. A new ‘Golden Generation’ of footballers have graced the national side and they impressively qualified for this summer’s World Cup. They rose to 5th in the World Rankings in 2013, their highest ever position on the table. Many pundits have tipped them to be dark horses at the competition, with their beautiful footballing style winning over many neutrals. So what changed?

To find the answer we have to go back almost 14 years to that defining night in Brussels. It was around that point that Michel Sablon, the national director of the Belgian FA, felt that a change was needed. He decided on a 10-year plan for the emerging generation to create a new golden age for Belgian football.

“In 2001, we established a new vision to develop young players in Belgium,” Sablon said. This vision involved among other things giving all the clubs “a brochure which detailed how to best manage player development”. This involved nearly every club adapting to the changes and at every national age group, where the likes of Mirallas and Dembélé were discovered, teams would play with the same style.

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Although they competed at the World Cup in South Korea in 2002, they failed to qualify in 2006, making it the first time the country was absent from the World Cup since 1978.

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Every player would have an understanding of exactly what their role in the team was from an early age and a fluid, flexible 4-3-3 system finally developed. Underage success soon followed. In 2007, a squad containing Hazard and Benteke to name a few reached the semi-finals of the U-17 European Championships for the first time. They also reached the semi-finals of the Beijing Olympics (a tournament that is basically an U-23 competition), losing to an Argentine side containing Lionel Messi and Sergio Agüero.

To make the team even more unique, they have decided to connect to their fans and thank the people who have made their entire journey possible. After qualifying for the World Cup, stars such as Eden Hazard, Nacer Chadli, Simon Mignolet and Romelu Lukaku have been doing household chores for fans in order to thank them for their support. YouTube videos have sprung up of the players washing and drying dishes or babysitting, and children going wild with delight after seeing their heroes in their kitchen. It is part of a new initiative set up by the Belgian FA to bring players and fans (who spend thousands of euros to support their team) closer together. Fans were chosen by entering a competition in which they completed a task for charity and in return a star player did something for them.

While it may do nothing to improve performances on the pitch, it is a fantastic idea that will certainly mean that there will be a huge support for them, even in Brazil. “I knocked on the door and asked if there was anything I can do,” Eden Hazard explained. “I put a poster up on the wall for a boy and washed some dishes. It’s okay but I prefer being on the pitch.”

The list of high profile names that they have is also very impressive, with the likes of Hazard, Kompany, Benteke, Mignolet, Vermaelen, Mirallas and Lukaku lighting up the Premier League in recent months. They traditionally produced great defenders while their more attacking players, like Enzo Scifo, were overlooked. In terms of transfer fees, the starting XI is estimated at €180m, the third highest after Brazil and Portugal, and this was before Witsel’s massive €40m move to Zenit St. Petersburg.

Be afraid. Belgium are going to be a handful for any team at this summer’s World Cup in Brazil, and while not being branded as one of the favourites, they will certainly have a say in the destination of the greatest prize football has to offer. They are a young team with promising players, a burgeoning fan base and a bright future. They may not be up there with the likes of Spain and Brazil just yet, but they have certainly come a long way since 2000.  They are the dark horses in that they are loved by neutrals, play an exciting brand of football and are a team full of mavericks and masters of football. Their next defining moment may well be Vincent Kompany lifting the FIFA World Cup in the Maracanã on the 13th of July.  Who would bet against them?