Why Belgium Are Equipped to Contend at the World Cup in Brazil
On Sept. 5—two days before Belgium opened their 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign away to Wales—prominent Brussels-based daily La Derniere Heure ran a photo of the national team on its front page, accompanied by the headline, “Les Diables, 3e Equipe la Pus Chere Due Monde.”
“The Devils, 3rd most expensive team in the world.”
To arrive at its conclusion, La DH had tabulated the recent transfer fees commanded by members of Belgium’s squad and found that only Spain and Brazil eclipsed its €125 “value.”
Obviously, their mathematics was an exercise in hyperbole as much as anything else (you can hardly judge a national team’s value based on open-market payments), but they succeeded in making their point: Belgium are poised to contend for honours, not just at the World Cup in Brazil, but at every senior tournament over the next few years as well.
In the following five slides we’ll examine why that is. Why things are suddenly coming together for the nation of barely 11 million people, and why this team of Belgian players could well surpass that of Claesen and Ceulemans and the 1980s side that contested both a World Cup semifinal and European Championship final.
Defense Wins Championships
Defense wins championships.
It’s an old cliche, but like many old cliche’s there’s certainly something to it. Look at the Spain and Italy teams that triumphed in 2006 and 2010, for example. Both were well near unbreakable, and both managed to lift the World Cup without filling the net with goals.
Manager Marc Wilmots has arranged his Belgium side from back to front. Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois—on loan at Atletico Madrid from Chelsea—is one of the top young stoppers in world football, and in front of him the partnership of Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen is exceptionally solid. They’re helped midfielder Axel Witsel, who is developing into a mature defensive player who understands his role in front of the back four.
The 24-year-old also happens to save his best football for the national team.
In six World Cup qualifiers Belgium have conceded only once, and they’ve kept four clean sheets from their last six matches in total.
When Chelsea paid €32 million for Eden Hazard last summer the the club was acquiring a two-time Ligue 1 Player of the Year and two-time Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year who had helped Lille to an unlikely league and cup double the previous spring.
So far this season Hazard, 22, has set a personal record for assists with 17 and has also contributed 12 goals to a Chelsea side in rebuild-mode. He is one of world football’s most gifted playmakers, and there’s nothing to suggest he won’t get even better over the next few years.
But he has never quite replicated his club form at international level, and until last weekend he had managed just three goals in 33 appearances for his country.
He got a fourth against Macedonia on Friday, however, and notched a fifth four days later in the return match. Both goals were game winners, and if he can continue improving in the Red Devils’ shirt there’s no telling how far this team will go in Brazil.
George Leekens never quite got the hang of this new generation of Belgian internationals, so when the Red Devils failed to qualify for Euro 2012 it spelled his exit from the setup.
Enter Marc Wilmots—initially appointed on an interim basis but who has since shown both a willingness and ability to grow as a manager while his team comes of age.
In 11 matches since succeeding Leekens the 44-year-old, himself a former Belgium international, has tasted defeat only twice, and on both occasions in friendly matches. His record remains unblemished in competitive fixtures, and he has his side on pace to qualify for a first World Cup finals since 2002.
“We have a group of 35 potential players,” he told Uefa.com in August, referencing the options available to him. “All of them have to pull in the same direction...No more excuses. We have excellent players but we have not achieved anything yet.”
Options, Options, Options
Against Macedonia on Tuesday Belgium’s available substitutes included the likes of Sunderland goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, Bayern Munich defender Daniel van Buyten, Everton midfielder Marouane Fellaini, Porto midfielder Steven Defour and West Bromwich Albion striker Romelu Lukaku.
Wilmots’ roster is loaded with options—many of them world class. And while it’s a nice problem to have, a lesser manager would no doubt be intimated by the myriad selection conundrums.
While the manager has a mostly settled defensive line in front of No. 1 keeper Thibaut Courtois, the six outfield positions in front of the defense can be filled by as many as 12 serious candidates in several combinations.
Wilmots seems to like Axel Witsel in a holding role and at the moment prefers Aston Villa marksman Christian Benteke to Lukaku. But neither player’s place is guaranteed. There is fierce competition for starting roles for this Belgian team, and that can only bode well for them.
Talk about old cliches.
Robert Coppee and Henri Larnoe were the heroes of the Belgium team that won Olympic Gold in Antwerp in 1920, and Raymond Goethals’ 1972 squad—captained by Paul Van Himst—came fourth at that year’s European Championship. Then there were the 1980s teams of Jan Ceulemans, Eric Gerets, Rene Vandereycken and Nico Claesen.
The current generation of Belgian internationals has the potential to do even better than their most successful predecessors, although, as Wilmots pointed out last summer, they haven’t won anything yet.
Still, a group that includes Courtois, Kompany, Vertonghen, Dembele, Fellaini, Witsel, Hazard, Lukaku and Benteke, among others, is loaded with potential.
Whether they like it or not—and whether they win anything or not—this is Belgium’s Golden Generation. And only they can turn one of world football’s best teams on paper into a legitimate contender.