A few years ago, a business colleague in Brussels wanted to tell me all about Belgium and its lack of success as a sporting nation. Shutting his office door and looking around as if he was about to impart official secrets, he whispered: “The big problem here is that one half of the country doesn’t talk to the other half. It’s mutual hate. This place is a tinder box – it could be another goddam Yugoslavia.” As he told me this, the veins at the side of his head bulged and his eyes became intense and worried. He actually frightened me – I was looking out of the window for tanks and military personnel.
All I really wanted to do was talk to him about getting a ticket to see Anderlecht play, but he was convinced that Belgium could become the next big problem for Europe, indeed, the world. According to my colleague, and to quote Bob Dylan, it was a case of “Music in the café at night, and revolution in the air”. Happily, it has never quite happened, although there has been friction between the French-speaking and Flemmish folk of Belgium.
As the World Cup approaches, we hear that the Belgium national squad has occasionally had such regional issues. Some players conduct their interviews in French, some in Dutch. At times, they stick together in their respective groups. And we also hear that some of Belgium’s players are a bunch of “big-timers” and prone to outbreaks of petulance. That doesn’t sound too different to the average group of pro footballers these days and if doesn’t take away any of the gloss that is being painted on yet another so-called “golden generation” of players that will struggle to live up to enormous expectations.
Forget about Poirot
Belgium will travel to Brazil as one of the dark horses of the tournament. It’s been a while since anyone looked at anything Belgian with any degree of admiration, although to be fair, Agatha Christie and Stella Artois have done their best to keep Belgium in the public eye. But the old joke of “name a famous Belgian” is starting to wear thin: Belgium currently has a bunch of players that could really light up Brazil 2014.
The question is, are they really that good, or are they merely a useful collection of players that perform supporting roles? There is little doubt sublime talent exists in the Belgium squad – Eden Hazard of Chelsea, for example, could be one of the names of the tournament. He has the sort of ability that would not look out of place in the host nation’s team.
Hazard’s progress at Chelsea makes him one of the most successful Belgian exports, but the English Premier is packed with his compatriots, all of whom are making an impression. It’s an indictment of the current lack of a English quality in the country’s own league that you can select a better Belgium XI from the EPL than an England XI. Just take Vincent Kompany of Manchester City, for a long time rated as the best central defender in the Premier. And forwards like Aston Villa’s Christian Benteke – sadly missing this summer through injury – and Everton’s on-loan Romelu Lukaku are much-coveted by Europe’s top clubs. Before his move to Manchester United, Marouane Fellaini was also on most shopping lists. There are more and they are playing at clubs like Arsenal, Tottenham and, in Germany, at Bayern Munich. And don’t forget, Atletico Madrid’s fantastic season has been partly attributable to the form of goalkeeper Thibaud Courtois, who may or may not return to his club, Chelsea.
It’s easy to label a promising squad as a “golden generation” but unless it delivers, it will be consigned to history as under-achievers, witness the England squad of the late 1990s and Portugal of the Figo era. This will be Belgium’s chance to show it is not all hype – that there really is muscle from Brussels.
You say you want a revolution
There’s a reason why it’s suddenly come good for the “Diables Rouges”. In the 1980s, Belgium enjoyed a reasonable period, finishing runners-up in the European Championship in 1980 and reaching the semi-finals of the 1986 World Cup. They qualified for every major competition up until the 2002 World Cup in Asia, where they reached the last 16. It went downhill from there, and as recently as 2009-10, they lost 11 of their 16 games. But a revolution gathered momentum – not the kind hinted at by my colleague – shortly afterwards that has yielded a plethora of talented players that are among the most sought-after hired guns in Europe.
It’s largely been down to the inability of Belgium’s top clubs to compete on the pan-European stage. Thirty or forty years ago, clubs like Anderlecht, FC Bruges and Standard Liege presented formidable opposition, but now they cannot afford to import talent like their English, Spanish or even French counterparts.
The answer to the problems was simple: develop your own talent. It didn’t happen overnight, however, as the Belgian FA put a plan in place to bring on youngsters as early as 2001, so it’s a decade-plus project that is now bearing fruit. The tragedy for Belgian domestic football is that it cannot hold onto players like Kevin De Bruyne, Kompany and Fellaini.
There’s another angle to consider aswell – immigration. Like France in the 1990s, Belgium is starting to benefit from its immigrant population. Fellaini has Moroccan roots, Lukaku’s family came from the Congo and Axel Witsel’s from Martinique.
We all wanna change the world
People have been talking of the Belgian resurgence for a couple of years now, but they failed to deliver in the European Championship of 2012. In the qualifying competition, they finished third behind Germany and Turkey and didn’t make the finals in Ukraine/Poland. But the World Cup was a different story. They were unbeaten in a group that included Croatia, Serbia, Scotland, Wales and Macedonia. They won eight of their 10 games and conceded just four goals.
Belgium coach Marc Wilmots has arguably the best European squad outside of Spain and Germany to call upon, but with Benteke missing, firepower may be a problem. Even without the force of nature that is Benteke, their team could look something like this: Courtois in goal; Van Buyten, Kompany, Vertonghen and Vermaelen in defence; Witsel, Hazard, De Bruyne, Fellaini and Miralles in midfield; and up front Lukaku.
Belgium will meet Algeria, Russia and South Korea in their group, which gives them a very good chance of negotiating the initial stages. After that, they may come up against Germany or Portugal in the next round. Then we shall find out if Belgium can mix it with the World Cup heavyweights….