The atmosphere in the Roi Baudoin stadium when Belgium beat Cypress on the last day of qualifying was jovial.
An early well worked goal by Cyprus was immediately wiped away by a 4 goal flurry before the half and the evening ended with a thorough 6-1 victory over the Cypriots. Belgium has played Cyprus in three qualifying campaigns in a row, and so they have come to serve as a guage of the national team.
While it seems a given that the red devils with their world class talent beat a minnow like Cyprus their first tests against this tough opponent were very different than the most recent drubbing. In 2015 Cyprus beat a very strong Bosnia and Herzegovina in Bosnia, and held Belgium scoreless until the 86th minute in their first encounter. In Brussels Cyprus lost 5-0, but largely thanks to the physical play of Marouane Fellaini.
Back then Marc ‘War pig’ Wilmots was coach, he had managed to form Belgium’s raw talent into a tenacious group finally ready to play for one another, but on a tactical front he was entirely out of ideas from day one.
His bilingualism, spirit, and rolled up sleeves endeared him partially to Belgian fans and he was able to lead Belgium to a world cup quarter finals in 2014 after a 12 year absence from tournament football ( the 2008 olympics notwithstanding).
Belgium’s 0-1 victory to Cyprus was emblematic of Wilmots’ “style”. Belgian fans had seen similar outings against FYROM, Russia, and Korea where the team relied on a flash of individual brilliance far too late into a game in order to seal victory or avoid defeat.
The first sign that this was problematic was against Argentina in the 2014 quarterfinals. After a brilliant Higuain goal Belgium were unable to muster a response. The final that year provided only slight consolation when Higuain got kneed in the face for trying to interfere with Manuel Neuer and Argentina were humiliated in the final.
Any mandate Wilmots might have claimed in twice achieving qualification disappeared when Belgium suffered a shock defeat to Wales in Euro 2016. After going up early through a thunderous shot from Radja Naingollan, our beloved devils with their backs to a cliff edge could not find the strength to hold off a determined Welsh advance orchestrated by the penetrative passing of Aaron Ramsey, and were left bleating to the Belgian media.
In the run up Belgium had put in further underwhelming performances in a series of pre-tournament friendlies. The night before the friendly against Finland being played in Genk I almost ran over Belgian legend Marouane Fellaini as he conspicuously crossed diagonally across a round about in Antwerp’s southern nightlife district. He didn’t start the match the following day reporting sickness although he seemed fine to me.
Wilmots was soon sacked and replaced with the fast talking Catalan Roberto Martinez. His appointment was met with scepticism after enduring two underperforming years at Everton. But Bobby was a well respected coach, one of the first to introduce statistical analysis into the actual mechanics of the beautiful game.
He had won an FA cup against a much stronger Manchester City squad with Wigan Athletic, while simultaneously getting relegated. What was surprising about Wigan’s victory was not only the result but the manner in which it was achieved.
This wasn’t Greece embarrassing Portugal at home in 2004, where one team of superstars cracked under pressure while their opponent defended with heart and guile, Wigan had consistently played well. An unremarkable club with a heavy footed kick and rush culture were passing the ball crisply and putting teams with big reputations to the sword, notably beating Liverpool at Anfield during the run in.
Four years on and our Devils are playing Bobby ball, an intensely fluid and beautiful style of football. The overwhelmingly biased coverage of Martinez in England led many pundits to poke fun at his ability to organize a team defensively. Martinez returned the favour by brushing the overrated English out of his way twice at the 2018 World Cup, he made the English look like Sunday leaguers.
At the end of the aforementioned victory at home against Cyprus Bobby was charmingly serenaded by the tone-deaf ultras, insofar as Belgium has ultras. There have been hiccups, and the team has weaknesses but they have shown that when called upon they will fight for one another. That much was clear under Wilmots.
But unlike under Wilmots when they were behind against a cowardly French team at the 2018 world cup, they put it all on the line with aplomb. In the wake of the defeat captain Eden Hazard said something many Belgians would agree with, he said “I would rather lose with Belgium than win with France”.
So here we are at the turn of the decade, staring our last two chances at major victory in the face. We’ve already been gifted a memory that will last us our lifetimes.
We enjoy every second our beloved team plays, and we know that one day we will no longer have our heroes on the pitch. 2020 is an obvious chance, we go in as a polished contender with known weaknesses, but a contender nonetheless. 2022 in the searing heat of Qatar is less obvious, but I argue that we still have a chance and below I outline my case:
1. Anything can happen at a tournament, and history has shown time and again that the draw can be critical, so are injuries. In 2014 the English and Italians ignored the heat of Manaus and effectively exhausted their teams, both teams were knocked out in the group stage.
2. Our stars will not be as old as some think. The offense and midfield will all be younger than World Cup MVP Luka Modric was in 2018. The defence is the main concern. There won’t be the same positional and technical skill as in 2018, with only Alderweireld young enough to start, but even Kompany will be younger than Van Buyten was in 2014.
3. Young players are being integrated into the first team, and there are a handful of youth players that are showing some promise. Yari Verschaeren, Zinho Venheusden, Elias Cobbaut, and Timothy Castagne have all been touted as future devils with only Vanheusden no yet being called up. Players like Youri Tielemans and Leander Dendoncker have already been integrated into the first team. These new players are getting the necessary experience with the more senior players, and hopefully they will pass on Belgium’s best trait.
4. Belgium’s best trait is also its worst. Belgian’s are stubborn, they keep fighting even if they don’t believe. Half the time they don’t even know what they’re fighting for or if the situation even calls for confrontation! I think it has something to do with the weather because it transcends race, class, gender, and nationality. IF you’re doing admin it’s unbearable but in the context of sport it is an admirable trait.
The 2020 euros could end in disaster, especially considering that Wales has qualified, but we might also get 6 or 7 opportunities to drink beers out of plastic cups and sing songs. 2022, while less promising, is still very much an opportunity should we qualify.
All I know is that if we lose to Wales again then I’m dedicating my life to some kind of witchcraft in order to get revenge.