Euro 2016: Time for Belgium to move beyond the tag of ‘Dark Horses’

  • Abhimanyu Kulkarni, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jun 08, 2016 15:38 IST
Belgium's national football team pose for a picture ahead of a friendly football match between Belgium and Finland, at the King Baudouin Stadium, on June 1, 2016 in Brussels. (AFP Photo)

Chocolates and Tintin have been its best known exports, but of late Belgium has been playing some seriously good football that has supporters seeing Euro 2016 as the perfect stage for the “Golden Generation” to shine.

Belgium were leading the Fifa rankings before Argentina overtook them in March -- quite an achievement for a team ranked 71 barely five years ago.

The team lived up to its top billing during the qualifiers, winning their group to make first European Championship appearance 2000. They won eight of their 10 qualifying matches, drawing one and losing one. They scored 24 goals and conceded just five.

European football has always been about Germany, Spain, Italy, Netherlands and France. Belgium were never counted among the Big Boys but that is changing. Belgium made the quarterfinals of the 2014 World Cup, where they were ousted by Argentina.

Belgium's Eden Hazard in action with Finland's Kasper Hamalainen (R). (REUTERS)

Belgium’s re-emergence as a genuine footballing powerhouse can be attributed to former FA director Michael Sablon. Ten years ago he set the country on a path to change by improving training facilities and harnessing young talent, giving the country a pool of players that has come to be known as the Golden Generation.

Centralised coaching schools were set up across the country that emphasised on a 4-3-3 playing formation, similar to the one followed by their Dutch neighbours.

But, a look at the current squad reveals that nine of the players are from immigrant families. Romelu Lukaku, Marouane Fellaini, Vincent Kompany, Mousa Dembele, Divock Okoth Origi and Axel Witsel have at least one parent born outside Belgium.

Read: From Libero to tiki taka: Here’s how styles and team formations evolved

Also, most of them ply their trade in the English Premier League. Eden Hazard, Dembele, Lukaku and Thomas Vermaerlen are among lead players for their clubs.

Coach Marc Wilmots deserves credit for bringing this disparate but exciting bunch together and turning them into a lethal machine.

Belgium's soccer team goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois dives for the ball during a practice session. (REUTERS)

Belgium look to be a complete team with talent evenly spread across the pitch. Thibaut Courtois is one of the best keepers in the business. Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld man the defence though absence of injured Kompany and centre-back Vermaelen would be a big blow.

The midfield is Belgium’s biggest strength. Wilmots can count on Witsel, Radja Nainggolan, Marouane Fellaini and Dembele - and that is before you even consider Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne.

Read: From Benzema, Ribery to Mata, Torres: Players missing out on Euro 2016

Experience at major tournaments may be a cause for worry but as long as De Bruyne and Hazard are at Wilmots’ disposal, the 1980 Euro runners-up have the chance to go one better.

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