Sweet Like Chocolate: a team fast becoming everybody’s second favourite - Belgium

October 18, 2013 in International by Emma Lucy Whitney

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The collective mood which spread across England on Tuesday night was one of relief; Roy’s boys had, in the end, managed it, qualifying for Brazil 2014 in something dangerously close to style. If the memories of the past decade or so of apathetic underachievement is enough to make Three Lions’ fans grimace, imagine what it must feel like to be Belgian at the moment. The Rode Duivels finally qualified for their first international tournament in 12 whole years with their Romelu Lukaku-inspired win over Croatia last week, and the country duly erupted into euphoria. At a time when the obligatory ‘golden generation’ of Belgian players are really starting to achieve something individually, with successes at club level across Europe, particularly in the Premier League, qualification for this World Cup has come at exactly the right time. It may even go some way towards reconciling the different political factions in the country – though a number of Belgians from the Flemish north seek to separate from French-speaking Wallonia, all parts of Belgium are currently cheering on one set of players. With all kinds of pressure on its collective shoulders then, will this Belgian team really live up to the hype?

Belgium

Rewind six years, and any discussion of Belgian football would have included their fall to 71st in the FIFA world rankings, a shocking position for any country with a proud footballing history and pretensions to aim for the highest of prizes. Yet now, they will go into the pot for next year’s World Cup draw as one of eight seeded teams, joining the likes of Spain, Argentina and Germany by being officially recognised as part of international football’s elite. Just how did the Diables Rouges climb a whopping 66 places to be ranked 5th, as they are today? According to the Daily Express’s Richard Edwards, the key was the Belgian FA’s realisation that the national team’s fortunes were linked to how football was being taught in schools, and what Belgian football was achieving domestically. With clubs, schools and the governing body all working together across Antwerp, Brussels, Bruges and beyond, such a turnaround of form and expectations became possible. As Edwards comments, ‘[w]ithout the buy-in of all three [parties], Belgium’s decline might have been irreversible [...] With the Belgian FA working with the clubs [the likes of Anderlecht and Standard Liége] to persuade them to play a set 4-3-3 system throughout their underage sides, the country is now challenging the traditional powerhouses [of European football]’.

Interestingly, a more positive approach to the national side from the Belgian media and fans has also helped the squad to achieve its current success; as ex-Rote Teuful manager Georges Leekens told Sunday Express Sport, ‘[t]his was a country where footballers had had enough of being criticised for failure. We needed to change this mind-set and get them to believe in themselves and, most importantly, get them enjoying themselves.’ A focus on what the national team could rather than couldn’t do, and a desire to blood players at a younger age have also contributed to the up-turn in form Belgium has produced recently; if only such positivity and level-headedness could be replicated in England. Talking of managers, the effect of Belgium’s current gaffer, Marc Wilmots, must not be overlooked; according to FIFA.com, the former attacking midfielder turned politician has ‘restored a sense of desire and pride to a [Belgian] side that had been languishing in the doldrums for five years. Loved by his troops, acclaimed by the media and idolised by the fans, [Wilmots] has capitalised on the progress made by his Premier League-based players since replacing Leekens…’ Indeed, the Premier League connection is perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of this current Belgian revival, certainly when viewing things from an English perspective.

A total of 13 Belgians currently play regularly in the Premier League (go on, see if you can name them all), and Manchester United midfielder Marouane Fellaini links appearing at such a level with footballing maturity, commenting that ‘[e]veryone’s playing in England and that’s allowed us to set our sights high.’ Being the fifth most-represented overseas country - after France, Spain, the Netherlands and Brazil - in the best league in the world is indicative of the kind of talent Belgium has at its disposal these deals. To reap the rewards of such a ‘golden’ generation requires much more than resting on the laurels of good fortune, however; talent needs to be honed with the correct coaching and infrastructure. Ironically, for all the grand schemes and good work coming out of the Belgian FA, it could be argued that the recent run of excellent results is not related, as most of the Red Devils’ star players are too old to have benefited from a change in youth development – if they stuck around in Belgium long enough at all. Chelsea’s Eden Hazard leaving Belgium at the age of 14 to join French side Lille is a case in point, and a former thorny issue for some Belgian fans when his international form at first failed to match his club displays. Perhaps the benefits of having so many players based in such a competitive league as the Premier League, playing with the world’s greatest week-in week-out, coupled with a renewed sense of optimism back home is really what has unlocked the potential in the Belgian side after years of misfiring, turning the team from a bunch of talented individuals to a successful, connected unit.

Can Belgium go all the way next year, then? Moving from serial underachievers to dark horses to fifth favourites in the space of a few years is no mean feat, though Tuesday’s one-all draw with Wales suggests that there is still room for improvement. The Kompany factor may well be crucial here, too; just as talisman-like for his country as he is for his club, a fairly young and inexperienced Belgian side would benefit greatly from Kompany’s commanding presence on the field as well as off it. As a Man City fan, I know only too well how key Vinny can be to a team, so hoping that their Captain Fantastic stays injury-free will be high on the World Cup wish list for Belgian players and fans alike. With the amount of talent in the Red Devils squad – from Kompany to Lukaku, from Vertonghen to De Bruyne, let’s face it, most of the Belgian national team wouldn’t just walk into the England set-up, they’d bloody cartwheel in there - getting out of the group stages is a given, the quarter-finals are a must, and the semi-finals a realistic ambition. I’ve got a soft spot for Belgium; a great team full of fantastic players, it’ll be nice to see them finally fulfil their potential. Just keep everything crossed that they don’t draw England!

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