Why Belgian football's gone rubbish

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“In sport,” said Belgium’s greatest footballer Paul van Himst, “you have to be able to handle losing.”

The Red Devils, beaten 4-1 by Morocco in their latest friendly, now handle defeat so well that they find it hard to do anything else. Even Van Himst’s old club Anderlecht are failing with style, losing 5-1 to Bayern Munich in the last 16 of the UEFA Cup, their heaviest ever home defeat in Europe.

Van Himst is one of my idols, a perennial star in the football annuals I devoured as a kid. Technically, he wasn’t as accomplished, I now realise, as Henri Coppens, the iconoclastic Belgian star of the 1950s who regarded the football pitch purely as a stage on which to perfect his performance. (Beerschot fans would often turn up just to see him, so he had a point.)

But Van Himst empowered his teams. With his immaculate side-parted hair, he looked, as Harry Pearson noted, “like he might have driven one of the Minis in The Italian Job while wearing string-backed gloves”. He did star in the memorably bad cult movie Escape To Victory (see fan site here), although he disappointed in the 4-4 draw between the Allies and Germany. Mind you, he was also accused of disappearing in Belgium’s 1970 World Cup games.

Paul van Himst (in red, at right) hides at Mexico 70

No matter. Van Himst inspired Anderlecht to the final of the 1970 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup; they lost to Arsenal 4-3 on aggregate but should have been five or six up after the first leg. Van Himst scored 10 goals in 10 Fairs Cup games that season but, bizarrely, fired blanks in the last three rounds of the tournament.

After he retired, Anderlecht won the Cup-Winners’ Cup in 1976 and 1978 and, with Van Himst in charge as coach, the UEFA Cup in 1982. Belgian football wasn’t exactly cool then but it was famous for something nobler than perfecting the offside trap – which the national team had, under French coach Rene Sinibaldi, used to great effect in the 1960s.

If Belgian football has a golden age, it would start in 1976 and end in 1986, when Maradona’s genius deprived the Red Devils of a place in the World Cup final. The most famous photograph from this tournament, showing the Argentine with the ball at his feet and six Belgians looking worried, doesn’t do that Belgium side justice or explain why, when they returned home, hundreds of thousands lined the streets of Brussels to welcome them.

The 1986 World Cup quarter-final, in which Belgium beat the Soviet Union 4-3 after extra-time, is the Belgian equivalent of the 1966 final: central to the nation’s football mythology. One of the most dramatic games in World Cup history (see the match report), this triumph inspired prime minister Wilfried Martens to declare “We can move mountains”.

That Belgium side was chock-full of talent. The famous names on the teamsheet were Jan Ceulemans, Eric Gerets, Jean-Marie Pfaff and Enzo Scifo. But it has been downhill – for Belgium and its football – pretty much ever since.

The golden age was tarnished by revelations that Anderlecht had bribed a referee before the second leg of their 1984 UEFA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest. When the scandal came to light in 1997, UEFA banned Anderlecht from European competition for a year.

Van Himst coached the national side to the last 16 at USA 94, where they lost 3-2 to Germany after being denied an obvious penalty. It was unjust but, as Anderlecht had been awarded a contrived penalty against Forest in 1984, it was as if the gods had insisted on payback.

Belgium co-hosted Euro 2000 and succeeded in becoming the first host nation not to reach the quarter-finals. Two years later, they gave Brazil much more of a scare than England did.

Since then, they haven't qualified for a major tournament and Belgian clubs have become a marginal presence in European competition. Some blame the Bosman ruling. Others point to the disparity in TV money that clubs like Anderlecht and Club Brugge earn compared to clubs like Arsenal and Liverpool, with whom they once competed on reasonably equitable terms.

When English or Spanish clubs snap up talent from PSV or Ajax, as they are wont to do, the Dutch clubs spend some of their loot buying Belgian talent. 11 Belgian internationals currently play in the Eredivisie and they are starting to cross the border before they have reached their prime.

Maarten Martens, AZ Alkmaar’s goalscoring midfielder, left Anderlecht when he was just 20. This pattern has almost been officially recognised, with Beveren and Royal Antwerp effectively becoming feeder clubs for Arsenal and Manchester United respectively.

So is there any hope? Some. The Belgian FA is trying to pep up the Jupiler League, reducing the number of top-flight clubs from 18 to 16 and introducing play-offs in 2009-10. Live games on TV cannot, now, be played at the same time as other Jupiler matches. And the Jupiler is competitive: Standard Liege look set to win it while Anderlecht, traditionally the dominant force, are stuck in fourth.

Despite the dismal showing against Morocco, Belgium still nurtures some fine players. Vincent Kompany, the great hope of Belgian football, is still only 21 and if he can shrug off his latest injury may yet come good. 19-year-old midfielder Steven Defour is a precocious, egotistical and brilliant playmaker whose repertoire of passes and shimmies have already sparked interest from Ajax.

In Hungary, the media have coined the term “Hungarian disease” to describe the curious process by which promising, technically gifted youngsters somehow fail to fulfil the expectations raised by their prodigious talents. A similar blight has struck many Belgian stars, from Giles de Bilde to Walter Baseggio and, so far, Kompany. If young stars like Defour can buck that trend, Belgium may soon discover that, in football, you have to be able to handle winning too.