After more than a decade in the dregs of international football, Belgium’s national team spied a new dawn in the summer of 2012. A fresh crop of young, hungry talent suddenly stood up to defeat the Dutch 4-2 in a packed King Baudouin Stadium, and from that moment, everything changed.
After failing to feature in five successive major tournaments, the Red Devils went on to win their qualification group for the World Cup in Brazil. They were boosted not only by a previously unseen popularity among Belgians, but also by an ever-expanding range of players confirming their huge potential in the biggest European leagues, particularly in England. By the time Marc Wilmots’ men had narrowly lost out to Argentina in Brasilia’s quarter-final, the small kingdom’s footballing elite had established itself as the golden generation.
And they went on to justify that moniker. With Eden Hazard crowned 2014-15 PFA Player of the Year, Thibaut Courtois being praised as one the world’s best goalkeepers and Kevin De Bruyne soaring first for Wolfsburg and then for Manchester City after being rejected by Jose Mourinho at Chelsea, Belgium continued their rise to the top en route to Euro 2016. Not only did they win their qualifying group, led by Vincent Kompany, they also beat Germany and Argentina to the No.1 spot in the FIFA world rankings last October.
This season has cast several doubts over the newfound ambition of the Belgians, with injuries (to Kompany, De Bruyne and Jan Vertonghen) and a loss of form (to Hazard and Christian Benteke). Even then, however, manager Wilmots has so many top-class players at his disposal that the Red Devils aren’t aiming for anything less than an appearance in the Euro 2016 final at the Stade de France on July 10. They know it’s time to prove a point.
Lesson from qualifying
Keep up the good work. Belgium lived up to their status as group favourites, finishing top despite dropping five points to Wales. The addition of midfield warrior Radja Nainggolan allowed De Bruyne and Hazard to focus even less on defensive duties.
Belgium’s biggest asset lies in l’embarras du choix: the variety of talent available to Wilmots. Besides a string of Premier League stars, the squad boasts Ligue 1 goal-getter Michy Batshuayi, Serie A super-sub Dries Mertens (whom Diego Maradona called his favourite Napoli player) and Atletico Madrid winger Yannick Ferreira Carrasco. Having the luxury of using the Premier League’s best centre-back duo, Spurs pair Toby Alderweireld and Vertonghen, as full-backs is another example of their strength.
Those makeshift full-backs are also an example of an imbalanced squad. The biggest concern is upfront: Belgium scored plenty in qualifying but Mersey-based trio Benteke, Romelu Lukaku and Divock Origi managed just two goals between them. The team looked toothless in a pair of shutouts against a Welsh back five.
Most likely to…
Rely on a late header by Marouane Fellaini to avoid a devastating early exit, before seeing the Manchester United war machine sent off for introducing a player to his elbow.
Least likely to…
Make it through the group stage without Kompany picking up an injury.
What they hope will happen
The sheer quality of this Belgium squad will, despite having just five World Cup games under their belt as far as tournament football goes, steer them towards a first international final since Euro 1980, and a first trophy ever.
What will happen
As the World Cup in Brazil painstakingly proved, a collection of top talent isn’t enough to bridge the gap with experienced tournament teams such as Spain, France and Germany. The latter will silence the hype when they clash in the quarter-finals.
Key player - Kevin De Bruyne
Forget Kompany and Hazard: with five goals and three assists, De Bruyne proved himself the true star of the team during qualification. Back from injury and considerably less worn down than his colleagues, Tintin is the creative leader Belgium need if they’re to prove they aren’t underachievers.
Manager - Marc Wilmots
“My life will not change if we don’t become European champions,” the ex-striker has said – but he’s under pressure at home to lead a talented team into the final for a shot at Belgium’s first major trophy.
Q&A - Marouane Fellaini
Do you believe Belgium are the best team in the world, as the FIFA rankings said you were until April?
We have to show that in the Euros – that’s the most important moment. We are a good team but there are also a lot of big teams there: Spain, Germany, France... They have the experience, whereas we’ve never won anything. But you never know. OK, we’ve been first in the FIFA rankings – that’s nice – and in the last four years we’ve only lost two competitive games. That’s why we were first in the rankings. But really we have to win something.
Would you agree this is Belgium’s golden generation?
Yes. For a long time Belgium didn’t have a group with this quality, so we’re under a lot of pressure. This Belgium team have known each other for a long time – since we were 15 or 16 years old. That’s why I think we’re good at the moment. We did well in the World Cup, reaching the quarter-finals, so people expect more now.
How much will the experience of that World Cup help?
I think it will help: it was our first experience together at a big tournament and now we can build from it. We went to the quarter-finals and faced Argentina, one of the biggest teams in the world, and played against great players. OK, they won the game 1-0, but it was good experience for us.
Your father is very proud of your success with Belgium, but he once said that he’d originally hoped you would play for Morocco. Was there ever a chance of that?
It was my decision. My dad spoke to me about Morocco, and I know Morocco, but I wanted to play for Belgium. I’m happy and my family are all behind me. They give me a lot of motivation and support. Belgium asked me when I was young and I immediately said yes, because that’s where I was born and grew up. With Morocco, they contacted me a little bit late, and I had already chosen Belgium.
Fixtures and results
June 14, Italy - Lyon, 3am
June 18, Rep. Ireland - Bordeaux, 9pm
June 23, Sweden - Nice, 3am
HOW THEY QUALIFIED
Group B winners
vs Andorra (H) 6-0
vs Bosnia & Herz’a (A) 1-1
vs Wales (H) 0-0
vs Cyprus (H) 5-0
vs Israel (A) 1-0
vs Wales (A) 0-1
vs Bosnia & Herz’a (H) 3-1
vs Cyprus (A) 1-0
vs Andorra (A) 4-1
vs Israel (H) 3-1
EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIP RECORD
1984 Group stage
2000 Group stage
Words Bart Cop; Interview Chris Flanagan
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