Should Belgium Be Considered a Genuine Contender for the 2014 World Cup?

Most of its players ply their trade in the English Premier League. So when will the world start taking the Belgians seriously?

  • Share
  • Read Later
JOHN THYS / AFP / Getty Images

Belgium's midfielder Guillaume Gillet, not pictured, scores during the 2014 World Cup qualifying football match between Belgium and Crotia at King Baudouin stadium in Brussels on Sept. 11, 2012.

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.

(MORE: The English Soccer Season Is Starting. Can We Have the Olympics Back Instead, Please?)

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.

(PHOTOS: Diego Maradona’s Quest for the World Cup)

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.

(MORE: TIME Magazine on Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United)

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.

PHOTOS: A Brief History of the World Cup

2 comments
LoudRambler
LoudRambler

 I wonder whether whoever wrote this follows football (soccer) at all.

 Firstly, the problem with national squads that are mainly comprised of people who play outside their own country is that building a coherent team out of them is a bit like herding cats. Every single player is used to his own team's style, quite a number of them have an ego, so it takes a good coach to make a football machine out of the source material.

 Secondly, English Premier League is not something godly. It maybe has 5-6 teams that are competitive, but below that it is a very wild combination of relatively strong teams (like Spurs) and outright mediocre teams like West Brom. And, yes, same can be said about other major European leagues, but English clubs won UEFA Champions League title only three times in the last decade, so it is not head and shoulders above the rest. Throw into the mix that the fact that if the player "plays" for the club doesn't mean that he actually actively plays and not a benchwarmer - and you might have a better idea why it doesn't really matter.

 Finally, if Belgium is so strong as to contend for World Cup, why didn't it perform up to date? Yes, it did beat Wales - but anyone can beat Wales. How did it play, for example, against majors in Euro 2012? Oh, sorry, we don't know. Because Belgium failed to qualify from the group with Germany (1st place) and Turkey (2nd place, failed to qualify through elimination round), and coming only marginally in front of Austria (1 game difference). And, yes, Belgium was drawn from the 4th pot in the tournament.

 Anyways, I fail to see the author's logic. Yes, Belgium may be located next to Netherlands - but so is Luxembourg, if that's the argument. Trying to put them in contention in Brazil is a very, very long stretch.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 234 other followers