Few would have raised Belgium as serious, or even outside, contenders for the prize in Brazil a couple of years ago. But the rapid progress of their young stars combined with some grit and spark means that the ‘Red Devils’ more than merit their dark horse tag.
Belgium’s Footballing History
Belgium have been playing international football since 1904, and won their first major honour at the 1920 Olympics, claiming gold. Although Belgium have never won a World Cup or European Championship, they have consistently qualified for major finals, including their ‘golden era’ between 1980 and 2002. They were runners-up at the Euros in 1980 and managed fourth place at the 1986 World Cup, eventually beaten by a powerful Argentina side. Following the 2002 World Cup in the Far East, several veteran players who had contributed to the Belgian success retired. Failure to qualify for Euro 2004 and the 2006 Germany World Cup led to the dismissal of several coaches, and a reliance on promising youth for the future.
After missing out narrowly on the Euro 2012 play-offs, a new exciting, colourful generation of talent emerged. Flair players such as Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard started to shine in Europe’s top divisions, while striker Romelu Lukaku showed hints of a young Didier Drogba. Combined with an experienced, robust defensive line, Belgium started to challenge some of the larger names in international football, and secured qualification for the World Cup this summer, finishing 9 points ahead of second-placed Croatia in Group A.
2014 World Cup Qualifying: Group A with Scotland
Everyone in Scotland knew how gigantic the challenge would be in a qualification group with Belgium. Despite the Tartan Army’s valiant efforts and stubborn tactics, Belgium emerged as 2-0 victors in both home and away fixtures. Belgium’s industrious work ethic was evident and their creativity and counter attack proved too much for Scotland to handle. Christian Benteke and Vincent Kompany scored in Belgium, whilst Steven Defour and Kevin Mirallas hit the net in Glasgow.
Road to Brazil
Belgium qualified as Group A winners at a canter, winning eight and drawing just two of their ten matches. After starting the campaign with a routine 2-0 win in Wales and a hard fought 1-1 draw at home to Croatia, the Red Devils won their next seven games to secure qualification. Their winning run included an impressive 3-0 rout of Serbia and a 2-1 success in Zagreb against Croatia – promising young striker Romelu Lukaku scoring both goals.
Eden Hazard’s sensational season at Chelsea highlights his importance to the Belgian cause. His dribbling skills and lightning agility make him a nightmare for any full back – but he also boasts physical prowess for a player with such a low center of gravity. Thibaut Courtois is also fast rising as one of the world’s top goalkeepers – his form will be crucial. Kevin Mirallas may have had his critics upon his initial arrival at Everton, but he has proven this year that he can perform at the highest level. Technically gifted and positionally aware, Mirallas is a direct attacker who is clinical in front of goal and can confuse defenders. A player who could have a more significant impact than people may assume.
All the facts on paper point to the Belgians easing to first place in this Group. Although Russia will prove talented opposition, Belgium should have too much pace and determination for them. The Russians have proved tricky opposition for some in the past, and managed to reach the semi finals of Euro 2008.
Algeria have done well to qualify but the gulf in class between them and the Reds will surely be evident. The Algerians performed valiantly at the finals in South Africa, however – who could forget their tepid stalemate against England?
While South Korea always perform with dignity at World Cups, it is hard to see them overpowering Belgium – although expect the Koreans to mount a serious challenge for second place.
Not only do Belgium play attacking, high pressure football, but the intensity and maturity of their game is a huge factor in their success. Youth players have been integrated in at an early age, helping them adapt to the international stage. Combine that with experienced leaders within the squad and the Belgians mean business.
Are there any weaknesses? Put simply – inexperience. Brazil is their first major finals since 2002, and, although their young legacy has proved to hold little naivety, more experienced and cunning opponents could deceive them. They will do well against teams who play open, but need a plan B when their attacking power is neutralized. Some teams with world-class forward lines – such as Germany and Spain – could end up being too powerful.
Belgium are a world-class outfit with astronomical potential. They have every chance of reaching the semi-finals, but are likely to fall short to the top dogs at the business end of the tournament. But if they can pass the hardest tests, they have every reason to believe the impossible dream.