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A league of their own: What makes Belgians so brilliant at football?
It still seems baffling, even among Belgians, to imagine their Red Devils as footballing goliaths. But as players and fans set their eyes on the World Cup in Russia this summer, there is no denying Belgium are real contenders for football’s greatest prize.
At the time of writing, Belgium were in fifth place in the Fifa world rankings. Though they have tumbled from the number one spot they briefly held three years ago, Belgium are still sitting higher than World Cup winners Spain, France, Italy and England. No other country has so many players amongst the world elite.
Half the current Belgian squad plays in England’s Premier League, from Eden Hazard at Chelsea and Kevin De Bruyne at Manchester City to Romelu Lukaku at Manchester United. Other Belgians in top European clubs include Thomas Meunier at Paris Saint-Germain, Thomas Vermaelen at Barcelona and Youri Tielemans at Monaco.
The Premier League connection is particularly juicy given that Belgium are set to play England in Kaliningrad on 28 June in the final group stage game. England have not lost to Belgium in their past 11 meetings – and their only defeat against them in 21 games was in 1936. The others in Group G are World Cup newcomers Panama (they play Belgium in Sochi on 18 June) and Tunisia (at Moscow’s Spartak stadium on 23 June).
What makes Belgians so brilliant at the beautiful game? Many observers point to the cosy, supportive nature of the local clubs and the lower leagues, where the players are still accessible to fans. Take Royale Union Saint-Gilloise, a Brussels-based Second Division side. Coach Marc Grosjean explains that as a small country, with few resources, Belgium approaches football differently to its bigger neighbours.
“We invest in football. There is a real love and passion for it, but we are smart about it,” he says. “So we have rules that ensure coaches all have the right training and diplomas.”
Known by fans as simply L’Union, the club was founded in 1909. With 11 league titles to its name – all won between 1904 and 1935 – Grosjean’s club is the third most successful in Belgian history, after Anderlecht and Club Brugge. He is bullish about Belgium’s chances in Russia this summer. “Everyone wants our players. With what we have, it will be a failure if we don’t reach the last four,” he says.
Union’s goalkeeper, Nicaise Mulopo Kudimbana, says Belgium’s success is down to its small size. “We all know each other,” he says. He was discovered aged 14 by a scout, who spotted him and his brother one night in Molenbeek, kicking balls against a makeshift goal garage. Although Kudimbana played in Belgium’s youth sides, he eventually chose to represent the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he was born (he arrived in Belgium aged three). He is close to Romelu Lukaku, who also has Congolese roots; the two bonded during their time at Anderlecht.
With his “little brother” leading the attack, Kudimbana is confident about Belgium this summer. “They will easily get to the semi-finals. With so much talent in every department, they have to get that far,” he says. Belgians have been steadily imposing themselves in foreign fields for a while, as a generation of talented young players emerged at the same time. There is also history. Vincent Kompany is a product of Belgium’s post-colonial immigration, having Congolese roots, while others come from Moroccan families, like Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli.
But there was some planning too. More than a decade ago, the Belgian football association delivered a blueprint to clubs on player development that most have followed: it called for better coaching qualifications and – presumably influenced by the Dutch – decreed that national sides at all age groups should play a high-tempo 4-3-3 formation.
It took some time for the results to filter through. The national side failed to qualify for Euro 2012, or any major tournament since the 2002 World Cup. But they reached the 2014 World Cup and were unlucky to lose their quarter-final against a Lionel Messiinspired Argentina. By Euro 2016, they were among the favourites but were knocked out at the quarter-finals again, this time by Wales – but this was put down less to the innate failings of the side than to the naive tactics of coach Marc Wilmots.
That seems to be changing now: the Red Devils have a renewed focus under Spanish coach Roberto Martinez, assisted by former Arsenal and France legend Thierry Henry. For a country that has not tasted success in a major tournament since winning gold at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, this is perhaps their best ever chance for glory.
All to play for
Ludo Vandewalle, chief sports writer at Het Nieuwsblad
The Belgian Premier League is notable among European leagues because the winner is decided by a playoff system. It means you get two peaks in one season: one when it’s decided which teams will compete in the play-offs, and a second at the end of the season. Club Brugge and Anderlecht are the best teams in Belgium, with Standard Liège, AA Gent and RC Genk key challengers this season. One problem in Belgium is that there are a lot of foreign players, thanks in part to very favourable salary conditions. The Red Devils are ambitious and believe they can win the World Cup. And if every player is fit, it is possible.
Realistically, they can reach the quarter-finals (as they did at the World Cup in 2014 and the European Championships in 2016), where they will meet Brazil or Germany. If they want a World Cup that everybody in Belgium will always remember, they need to beat either Brazil or Germany. So the quarter-final will dictate whether their World Cup will be considered a success or not.
This article first appeared in The Bulletin spring 2018. Photo: Bruno Fahy/Belga