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Red Flames fire up women's football on their way to EuroCup

13:55 14/07/2017
For the first time ever, Belgium’s women’s side are heading to the Euros, where they might be underdogs but are no less enthusiastic for it

After years watching the Red Devils on the pitch, this summer it’s their turn to strut their stuff: Belgium’s women’s football team, the Red Flames, are heading to the European Championships for the very first time.

Since their start in 1984, the Red Flames have never qualified for the Euros, nor the Women’s World Cup, which began in 1991. Nor even for the Olympics.

But at the Euros in the Netherlands, which kicks off next weekend, the Flames have an outside shot at Belgium’s first football prize since the men won the gold at the 1920 Olympics. Forward Janice Cayman thinks they could beat the odds.

“We might be able to do something special,” she says. “We might surprise people. I don’t know if we can go all the way, but we will give everything we’ve got, and take it game by game. Hopefully we will feel good at the end of it.”

Cayman (pictured above, left) is one of the most successful Belgian players ever. Born in Brasschaat, she currently plays for French side Montpellier HSC, and was a Champions League semi-finalist with another French team, Juvisy.

Breaking into the big time

But the 28-year-old recognises the challenge for Belgium. At 22nd on the Fifa Women’s World Ranking, “we’re the underdog team,” she says. “But we finally got to the Euro finals: It’s something to tick off the bucket list!”

Make no mistake: the Flames are long shots as well as newcomers. Few would rate their chances of hoisting the trophy on 6 August, after the final at De Grolsch Veste, the home of FC Twente at Enschede.

Bookmakers William Hill put Belgium 12th on its list of likely winners, at 34-to-one. They lost 0-2 to France in their warm-up match last Friday in Montpellier, and were thumped 7-0 by Spain the week before.

They will play their last friendly on Tuesday against Russia at the stadium of Dutch side FCV Dender in Denderleeuw.

Many feel that it’s their inexperience at the top level that will count against them in this group. Coached by Ives Serneels, who won the title with Lierse in 1996, the Red Flames’ last competitive match was at the invitation 2017 Cyprus Cup, where they finished seventh out of 12.

Their only other tournaments were invitations: the Cyprus Cup in 2015, where came last of 12, and the 2016 Algarve Cup where they came fifth of eight.

So they’re well aware of the hard road ahead, as they start off with their match against Denmark next Sunday, followed by Norway four days later and hosts the Netherlands four days after that. Belgium managed a cheeky 3-2 win over the Netherlands when they met last year in Leuven.

Team spirit

Euro 2017’s 16 finalist sides will be drawn into four groups of four, with the top two in each section progressing to the knockout phase. Each team will play their three group games in three different venues. The four groups are: A) Netherlands (hosts), Norway, Denmark, Belgium; B) Germany (holders), Sweden, Italy, Russia; C) France, Iceland, Switzerland, Austria; D) England, Scotland, Spain, Portugal

The Red Flames will be led by captain Aline Zeler of Anderlecht, the most capped Belgian player, currently on 92. The most likely source of goals will come from Wolfburg’s Tessa Wullaert, who has the Belgian record with 31.

However, they will be without striker Tine Schryves, currently with Swedish club Kristianstads, who is nursing a foot injury.

But there is a strong team spirit among the Flames, Cayman says. “We’re sort of a little family,” she says. “We all know each other pretty well. It’s fun to go into camp and to live together. It’s cool to experience these Euros with this group of people.”

A higher standard

Cayman says there is a new wind blowing through Belgian football: It lifted the men’s team to the Fifa number one spot in 2015, and it has inspired the women, too. “There is totally a connection,” she says. “The level of players in Belgium just got higher. A lot of players play in different leagues around Europe, and we all just got a little better.

Part of this is also down to the BeNe League, which brought women’s football in Belgium and the Netherlands together in a single league for three seasons between 2012 and 2015. “The BeNe League was the first step towards a higher level. The league doesn’t exist anymore, but it moved everyone towards a better standard.”

Now women’s football is getting the recognition that it deserves, she says. “It’s getting better and better. Here in Belgium, people are starting to talk about the Red Flames. It’s pretty cool that we’re getting appreciation like the guys.”

It’s still not easy. Cayman went to an all-girls school where she was not allowed to play football. But at 15, she went to Top Sports School in Antwerp, where she played football with boys, including Red Devils Mousa Dembélé (currently at English Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur) and Radja Nainggolan (with Italian Serie A side Roma)

Last year, Cayman won a title in the US with the Western New York Flash. This was a real achievement: the Americans take women’s football very seriously, and the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) is the most competitive in the world.

The 2002 hit movie Bend It Like Beckham dramatised the recruitment into American women’s football, and Cayman says it felt like a different world. “The facilities were perfect for a football player: the field, the cool tub and hot tub, the trainers. I was shocked.”

Now, however, she is focused on the Flames, knowing that Belgian fans will be getting behind her. “I don’t really think of it as pressure, I think more of it as an honour to play with that jersey, with that Belgian flag,” she says. “This is the dream of a little girl to play for her country.”

Euro 2017: What the Flames are fighting for

In women’s football, Euro 2017 is the show that throws Europe’s finest teams together for a month-long scrap to find out who can be the continent’s champion. Officially named the UEFA European Women’s Championship and also known as the Euros or the European Cup, the competition is held every fourth year.

Unofficial women’s European tournaments had been held in Italy in 1969 and 1979, with Italy and Denmark reigning supreme, but it was only in 1984, as women’s football grew in popularity, that the first European Competition for Representative Women’s Teams was held, with Sweden winning.

The 1991 and 1995 editions were used as European qualifiers for the Women’s World Cup, before the group system used in men’s qualifiers was replicated for the women’s game. Originally, there were only four teams that competed. That doubled in 1997, and a further four teams were added in 2009. There will be 16 teams in the 2017 competition.

German dominated

The most recent Euros took place in Sweden in 2013 and was won by Germany. The Germans dominate the event: They have won eight of the 11 Euros, including the last six in a row. The only other winners have been Sweden (1984) and Norway (1986 and 1993).

Belgium’s path to Euro 2017 took them through a year-long qualifying campaign between September 2015 and September 2016, playing in a group with England, Serbia, Estonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Red Flames finished a comfortable second against England, allowing them to skip a play-off and qualify directly for the finals.

The Red Flames only lost one game in their eight qualifiers, a 0-2 home defeat to England. But they also won some memorable matches, including 6-0 and 5-0 victories against both Bosnia and Estonia.

Key Euro 2017 dates

16 July: Denmark v Belgium, 20.45 Stadion De Vijverberg, Doetinchem
20 July: Norway v Belgium, 18.00 Rat Verlegh Stadion, Breda
24 July: Belgium v The Netherlands, 20.45 Koning Willem II Stadion, TIlburg
29 & 30 July: Quarter-finals
3 August: Semi-finals
6 August: Final

Who are the Flames?

This is the official squad listing for Belgium at Euro 2017

Goalkeepers: Nicky Evrard (AA Gent), Diede Lemey (RSC Anderlecht), Justien Odeurs (FF USV Jena)

Defenders: Imke Courtois (Standard Liège), Tine De Caigny (RSC Anderlecht), Laura De Neve (RSC Anderlecht), Laura Deloose (RSC Anderlecht), Heleen Jacques (RSC Anderlecht), Davina Philtjens (AFC Ajax), Lorca Van De Putte (Kristianstads DFF), Nicky Van Den Abbeleele (RSC Anderlecht)

Midfielders: Maud Coutereels (LOSC), Julie Biesmans (Standard Liège), Kassandra Missipo (AA Gent), Lenie Onzia (FC Twente), Elke Van Gorp (AA Gent), Elien Van Wynendaele (AA Gent)

Forwards: Janice Cayman (Montpellier HSC), Jana Coryn (LOSC), Yana Daniels (RSC Anderlecht), Davinia Vanmechelen (Standard Liège), Tessa Wullaert (VfL Wolfsburg), Aline Zeler (Standard Liège)

Photo: Forward Janice Cayman (left) celebrates getting to the Euros with the Red Flames ©John Thys/BELGA

Written by Leo Cendrowicz