Last Saturday, it was a case of another day, another stellar showing from Belgium‘s blossoming soccer talents. One of the great underachievers of the international game had just opened their World Cup campaign for Brazil 2014 by efficiently dispatching the Welsh in Cardiff 2-0. And if the road fixture felt like a home from home for the Belgians, it was hardly a surprise when you consider than no fewer than 10 of the squad make their living in the world’s most popular division, the English Premier League. And the side maintained their unbeaten start to qualifying by coming from behind at home on Tuesday to tie 1-1 with Croatia.
As for these players, we’re not talking about mere squad fillers but luminous talents such as Manchester City’s captain, the defensive bedrock Vincent Kompany, Everton’s marauding midfieder Marouane Fellaini, new Spurs recruit Moussa Dembélé (they’ve also just signed his compatriot, the defender Jan Vertonghen) and arguably the player who has made the best start out of every single EPL player this season, Chelsea new boy Eden Hazard. Throw into the mix the likes of Arsenal captain, defender Thomas Vermaelen, Sunderland goalkeeper Simon Mignolet and on-loan West Brom striker Romelu Lukaku, and you have the component parts which should surely see Belgium not simply qualify for the next World Cup with embarrassing ease but be a genuine challenger to win it.
Yet you can still get a massive price of 50/1 on Belgium to lift the trophy (to put it in perspective, hosts and favorites Brazil are 3/1). The reason must be bound up within history, for Belgium, much like their neighbors The Netherlands, have rarely been able to harness a collective team spirit to rise above the talent of the individual and blend it into a winning formula. Instead, petty arguments and disagreements have dominated, resulting in the following anecdotes being more in keeping with a sitcom than a serious sport. An unnamed player not bringing his boots to training could (charitably) be seen as mere forgetfulness but when Fellaini allegedly chose a trip to the dentist over a game and Hazard’s reaction to being substituted is to storm down the tunnel and eat a hamburger, it’s clear that, if Shakespeare will forgive the mangling of his syntax, something is rotten in the state of Belgium.
“We have been waiting for 10 years to reach a finals. Expectations are high but we have the team to perform,” said Kompany after the victory over Wales. Kompany represented Belgium’s Under 16 side in 2002, which was the last year that the seniors made a major championship, getting to the last 16 of the World Cup. Before that, the Diables Rouges illuminated the 1986 World Cup by reaching the semi-finals just a few months after the 26-year old Kompany was born. Led by the talismanic “Little Pele,” Enzo Scifo, only the Diego Maradona-inspired Argentina stopped them from following up their 1980 European Championship final with another place at the top table of global soccer.
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But from there, a funk set in, from which the gloom is only now starting to lift. Only three years ago, the long-standing – and evidently suffering – team doctor Marc Goossens, resigned after 26 years, explaining to the Guardian that, “the mentality of some of the players is deplorable … we got fed up with the many intolerable things that made it impossible for us to do our jobs … they are pseudo-stars … with the sick attitude of childish snobs.”
How times have changed, and quickly. At domestic level, the country’s best known club sides – Anderlecht, Standard Liège and Genk – put their resources into developing youth though paradoxically letting them go abroad has harnessed their talents and turned them into world beaters. On the opening set of games of this EPL season, Everton shocked Manchester United 1-0, thanks to a headed goal from Fellaini, who terrorized the normally unflappable United with a display of sheer power that left losing manager Sir Alex Ferguson with a one word description: “Unplayable.” And the circle is neatly completing itself as Liège has been able to pump money into its youth academy, in no small part because of the $24m transfer fee they received from Everton for Fellaini in 2008.
And on the international stage, the players seem to be responding to coach Marc Wilmots, who played a starring role on the pitch as captain when Belgium last made the World Cup in 2002. Perhaps the squad respects him for what he achieved as a player or maybe it’s as simple as the fact that Wilmots is a Belgian patriot, in contrast to his Flemish predecessor George Leekens, but everything is starting to click for his team. Indeed, the local newspaper La Dernière Heure has figured out that in terms of transfer fees, his team is worth an eye-watering $230m, which works out to be the third most expensive international team on the planet, behind Brazil and Portugal, which isn’t too shabby for a country with a population of 10.5 million (and yet in the eyes of FIFA’s world rankings, they only come in 40th. Mind you, what does FIFA know? They rank England third). As for Wilmots, he too has seen Hazard’s difficult side. When the winger turned up late for training, just 24 hours after announcing on Twitter this summer that he was signing for Chelsea, Wimots’s response was to make Hazard buy every player a glass of champagne. Who knows: It might not be the last time the Belgian team has cause to break out the bubbly.
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