Belgium are the best team in FIFA but will they win?
Romelu Lukaku remembers the dark age of Belgian football well. He remembers the national team games in the cavernous Koning Boudewijn stadium in Brussels, where barely a quarter of the 50,000 seats were occupied. And he only remembers getting free tickets as a member of the youth national team, not because he was particularly interested in it Rode Duivels.
Apathy towards the Belgian national team was the norm at the time. I know because I grew up there too. From Lukaku’s birth in 1993 to his senior senior debut as a 16-year-old in 2010, Belgium only appeared at one European Championship in 2000 when it automatically qualified as co-host. The only World Cup he can remember was in 2002. “I didn’t even see Belgian games back then,” the Inter Milan striker told Emox News. “The national team wasn’t important to me. If you compare it with us, it’s different. We’ve come a long way.”
Belgium has. After failing to qualify for the 2006 and 2010 World Cups between the Netherlands, France and Germany and missing six out of seven euros from 1984 to 2016, the small country has spent more than two consecutive years at the top of the FIFA world rankings. It also spent much of 2019 and 2020 on the more scientific Elo ratings. In 2018 Belgium finished the best third place ever at the World Cup and, despite having control of the game, lost a narrow semi-final to soon-to-be champions France.
“I’ve seen a team mentality that is evolving,” says Lukaku. “The players really expect to win games. Just showing up and taking part in a big tournament is not good enough. It’s a completely different way of looking at the national team. “
This postponement was the next challenge for Belgium. It has gone from being futile to being a global power. It was a stuck nation remembering a golden generation led by Jan Ceulemans who finished second at Euro 1980 and fourth at the 1986 World Cup. Now Belgium is being renewed, with a team on the brink of overshadowing the ghosts of the past. But it still hasn’t won anything. And winning things begins with thinking and expecting to win them.
“We are working a lot to face this responsibility directly,” says manager Roberto Martinez, who after a disappointing quarter-final elimination to an upstart in Wales at the Euro 2016 switched millions of fans who want to see a winning team.
“When you’re part of the # 1 team in the world, you might be scared of losing that seat, or you could just enjoy jumping into a game and being the favorite when you know everyone’s the way will change the way he plays and play make it hard to beat. And the players have taken on that responsibility. “
Recognizing the status of a Moloch was a task for the entire association, which professionalized, diversified and modernized itself after decades of stasis and an island situation. “We’re not hiding,” says Peter Bossaert, CEO of the Royal Belgian Football Association (KBVB). “We know that we are no longer an outsider. We want to take part in every tournament in order to win it. The bronze medal at the 2018 World Cup reinforced our conviction.”
How Belgium’s talent changed his ambition
The dark age wasn’t that long ago.
The emergence of the free football agency in 1995 and the accompanying free movement of players within Europe devastated the once prestigious Belgian league. That’s ironic. Jean-Marc Bosman, a nondescript Belgian midfielder who took his fight to the European Court of Justice where his judgment would overturn unrestrained capitalism in football, first brought his case against the Belgian federation.
By 2000, Belgian professional clubs came together and agreed that the way to stop their death spiral was to double the youth development. With the support of the federation, they created a national style of play and a set of best practices for developing technical players. Resources were reallocated and in a remarkably short time, Belgium became a talent factory, with a population less than Ohio.
When this talent reached the senior team, it encountered a mindset that did not match ambition. That mindset still reflected the time when Belgium fell to 71st place on the FIFA rankings in 2007, the lowest place ever. “In the beginning, when I joined the team, it was about getting to a big tournament,” says Lukaku. “It was our goal to qualify for Euro 2012.” You didn’t do it.
“Even when we played against Kazakhstan – with all due respect – or against Azerbaijan, it was always the case that we had to be careful,” Lukaku continued. “We were always a little scared. We used to be too humble, which cost us a lot of games when we went out onto the field with a scared mentality. “
When all of these rising stars joined major clubs, they began to see the stature of their national team in a new light as well. After Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne joined Chelsea, Thibaut Courtois played for Atletico Madrid, Marouane Fellaini joined Everton and others worked their way up the pyramid as well.
“Then it was a matter of transferring the level that we had achieved with our clubs to the national team,” says Lukaku. “As soon as that happened, we shot up like a comet.”
“Now we know we have to win every game,” Lukaku continued. “Now we want to reach a final. We step on the field with confidence and know that we are Belgium and that we will become a great football nation. This is how we must behave. We step on the field and think we’re going to win this game and destroy the other team and that’s it. That’s our mentality. “
Youri Tielemans, a midfielder who plays for Leicester City, sees the losing World Cup semi-finals not as a high water mark, but as the start of something. “In the locker room after the semi-finals, which we lost to France, we have even more of the winning mentality,” he says. “We wanted to win even more and better than before. That’s a big difference that I see in the team. Our baseline is higher. Qualifying used to be an achievement and enough, that was a victory in itself. Now it’s at least a qualifying and then a deep run to get the medal. “
Belgium is struggling with its national identity. His soccer players don’t
Martinez has a comfortable job. He has a talent pool as deep as an ocean but with little history to do justice to.
There are two main complications. The first is a luxury problem, but a problem nonetheless: how to get all of these stars on the field and work together. Martinez calls this subject “a matter of clarity”.
The second complication is much less straightforward.
The Belgian players come from the same country, but not necessarily from the same place. Because Belgium is a strange nation of 11.5 million sewn together from pieces left over when other countries were made. There is Wallonia, a piece of France that speaks French. There is a piece of Netherlands called Flanders where they speak Dutch. And then there is the piece that used to be Germany but changed hands in reparation for the First World War.
Between the influx and influence of migrants from its former Congolese colony and a large population resettled from North Africa and Turkey, Belgium is a spectacular mosaic of a country that has always grappled with what it really is. Friction is a constant. In essence, the Flemings, who drive the economy, long resented the Walloons, who historically formed the aristocracy and looked down on the Dutch-speaking working class. They are divided by their language, which they each vigorously defend. And both have an uncomfortable relationship with the new Belgians who have arrived in recent generations. A Flemish secessionist movement and a resilient far-right element are throwing fuel on the fire. At its worst, Belgium is a nation of factions that share only one flag, one anthem and the country’s borders. At best, Belgium is its national football team, diverse and harmonious and successful.
There used to be an unspoken pressure on Belgian managers – mostly Flemish in recent decades – to get roughly an even number of Flemish and Walloons, regardless of how the talent collapsed. This added a layer of complexity. But it’s one that Martinez not only has as the second foreign Belgian coach in half a century – the other, Dick Advocaat, only lasted five games.
“In my case, I’m neutral and I think that’s the biggest advantage I’ve got,” he says. “It would be a very complicated situation for any coach with a background in any area of Belgium. I’m neutral – my decision is based on football. “
When he took the job, Martinez wondered whether he should learn Dutch or French. Instead, with the support of the association, he made English the working language of the team so as not to get into the linguistic stalemate. It is also known that the Red Devils fans sing in English for their team – “Belgium!” Rather than the partisan “Belgïe!” or “Belgique!”
Martinez, always the optimist, sees Belgium’s deep fault lines as a source of strength. “As a Belgian player we are very lucky because as a very young player you get open,” he said. “You have to learn two languages, if not three. The talented players left Belgium very early, very young. They had to get used to living abroad, understanding different cultures, and becoming effective in a locker room. As a team, it prepares you very, very well individually for becoming part of another team. “
According to Bossaert, the language barrier no longer forms factions in the team. “It’s not an issue at all,” he says. “You are the perfect mirror of our society.” And when the team plays now, a nation forgets for a while the things that divide them.
Why will this golden generation succeed where others have failed?
The success of a golden generation is fraught with problems. After the last, Belgium spent three decades vacillating between irrelevance and incompetence.
Therefore This The golden generation hopes to convey its values to the next. At 27, Lukaku is the youngest in his cohort. Most are in their thirties or about to be. Fellaini and Vincent Kompany have already left the national team or have stopped playing altogether. Others are slowly aging. So they started to train the new wave in their own way, not verbally, but by setting a wild pace and intensity in practice. Seeing Belgium Zug is impressed with the speed, accuracy and complexity of its drills.
“The young people joining now need to know that this is not a joke. We want to win games and tournaments,” said Lukaku. “We have to keep Belgium at this level in order to develop further. We have reached a status where we can no longer have bad games. We don’t want to go back to the level we used to be. We must be equally hungry. “
Tielemans, who played four games in the last World Cup and is only 23 years old, understands that. He gets that more has to be achieved. “The ranking is nice,” he says. “It’s prestige. But it’s not a trophy. We want to win a trophy.”
He is one of a wave of successors who grew up with an important national team. And the growing stature of the senior national team went back to the youth national teams it represented and raised the bar for everyone. “We paid more attention to the fact that the senior national team qualified for major tournaments,” he says. “You are judged by the shirt you wear. When Belgium reaches big tournaments, people expect the youth teams to perform too.”
It wasn’t just that Belgian youth development was reprogrammed to teach technology. It has also introduced new standards.
“A trophy would be our coronation”
There is an old board game in which you have to name as many famous Belgians as you can. But they cannot be fictional. So Tintin and Hercule Poirot do not count. Neither does food. It was a tough game until recently. There is the 16th century cartographer Mercator. Painters from different schools such as Rubens and Magritte. You may remember that actress Aubrey Hepburn was born in Belgium from a trivia game. But from there you would be owed to fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, some architects, and the man who invented the saxophone. Today Lukaku, Kompany and Hazard are well-known names in much of the world.
The football team made Belgium better known. Or at least produced better-known Belgians.
But it doesn’t mean much to Lukaku and his husband until they finally win something. In their opinion, you are not a golden generation until you win some gold.
“We’re first in the FIFA world rankings in two years, but we don’t have a trophy,” said Lukaku. “A trophy would be our coronation. I hope we can confirm what we did in Russia [at the 2018 World Cup] with the euro [in 2021]. And at the 2022 World Cup, I want our older generation to say goodbye in style. One last good impetus to prepare the younger generation and to say: “We left it here. We have made all the tools available to you. Take it over and take the team to a higher level. “
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a columnist at Emox News and a lecturer in sports communications at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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