On June 25th, 1986 in Mexico City, the Belgian national football team walked off the pitch against Argentina in disappointment, yet having exceeded expectations. It was the semifinals, and the Red Devils had fallen at the hands of Diego Maradona and his teammates; the mere fact the Devils were challenging the then greatest player for a spot in the World Cup finals was shocking.
As the way the tournament worked then, there were six groups instead of eight, and instead of only the top two teams in each group advancing, four of the third place teams would also earn a spot in the round of 16. In the 1986 tournament, Belgium was one of those third place teams; yet once it got to the knockout stage, it played as if it had won its group. In a battle of reds, they scored four goals in the round of 16 to send the Soviet Union home, and then in the quarterfinals proceeded to edge Spain in a penalty shootout.
After its subsequent 2-0 loss to Argentina in the semifinals, the Red Devils’ impressive run was over, and they finished with fourth place to their name.
28 years later, that performance stands out as the country’s best showing at a World Cup. Yet going into the 2014 tournament in Brazil, there is an unwavering hunch among footy heads that the current Belgian side can outshine that ’86 team.
The phrase “Belgian football” does not catch many people’s attention as the Belgian Pro League is a relatively lesser known domestic competition among those in Europe. But that tells nothing of the national team, where only three of the players on the roster actually compete in the Pro League; the others participate in the top leagues in England, Spain and Germany. In fact, each of the top eight teams in the 2013-14 Premier League season boasted a Belgian national player who either started for the club or made major contributions off the bench.
Placed in Group H, the Red Devils have an extremely favorable draw against Algeria, Russia and South Korea; Russia, which didn’t even qualify for the 2010 World Cup, would likely not have qualified again had it been placed in a more difficult UEFA qualifying group. Algeria made the 2010 Cup, but didn’t score a goal in the tournament. South Korea may be Belgium’s biggest challenge in the group after making the round of 16 in South Africa, but its recent losses to Croatia, Russia, Mexico and the U.S. show that even that challenge is minimal.
Belgium coach Marc Wilmots’ team is loaded with well-known names in every area: Goalkeepers Thibaut Courtois and Simon Mignolet are both steady options to saran-wrap the Belgium net; captain Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen and Jan Vertonghen are all athletic hunters of the ball on the defense; the midfield is stabilized by not only toughness and strength (think Mousa Dembele and Marouane Fellaini), but by finesse and skill on the ball as well (Eden Hazard, Kevin Mirallas and Adnan Januzaj all fit that role); and at the attack, the Devils possess the effective combination of speed (Dries Martens) and strength (Romelu Lukaku).
From its roster alone, Belgium is in the top tier in terms of depth at each section of the pitch, along with Spain, Brazil, Germany and France (Argentina is as talented as these teams, but that talent is very concentrated in its attack).
The main concern with Belgium is that its prestige is not nearly as established as the other countries in that tier – the Red Devils had not qualified for the World Cup since 2002. Moreover, recent worrisome results – losing to Japan, tying Ivory Coast and Wales – show that the team’s current form is far removed from its potential; it’s one thing to have a collection of stars who have proven themselves on the club level, but it’s another have those stars become compatible on the field.
It’s exciting to think that the nation of frites, beer, and chocolate may become less known for its caloric value to the world and more known for the dashing red jerseys and cloud-like afros that comprise this football team. On one hand, Belgium’s squad is young and unproven and thus does not have high expectations to live up to. On the other hand, this team was blessed with a pedestrian group; it should take first in Group H, which will help its odds of having an easier fixture in the next round. The Red Devils will have to demonstrate that, among the stars on the team, there is some chemistry and a willingness to give up touches for each other. Yet do not be surprised if, in a few weeks time, we witness football reminiscent of what that valiant Devils side displayed back in 1986.