Belgium: World No.1’s bid to be best in Europe
Maybe because they are known as De Rode Duivels (or The Red Devils) and a duivel is often depicted with a trident in hand, the story of the greatest era of Belgian football is always told through the trident’s sharpest prongs – Kevin de Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard. But the truth remains that Belgium’s finest are but children of a football revolution which ended up making them FIFA’s No.1 ranked country in the world today. And that revolution began on two key fronts in Belgium—on pleintjes and inside Michel Sablon’s mind.
Pleintjes, or squares, became a breeding ground for irrepressible talent. Empty parking lots, dry swimming pools, abandoned basketball courts—these pleintjes were a massive attraction to those who lived on the fringes of Belgian society. Immigrants mostly, from countries like Congo and Turkey, ignored otherwise but expressing themselves freely in these stomping grounds for beat music, cheap drugs and beautiful football.
The squares of Antwerp alone produced, among many others, the two towers of Belgium’s defense in Jan Vertonghen and Thomas Vermaelen, and also the cunning footwork of midfielder Mousa Dembele. And from the pleintjes of Droixhe, a notorious neighbourhood in the outskirts of Liege, emerged midfielder Alex Witsel and striker Christian Benteke. They would all go on to form the soul of Belgian football, but what about its flesh and bones—the middle-class majority, whose children stagnated on the perfectly manicured fields in Flemish schools? The answer lay with Michel Sablon, the revolution’s guerrilla leader.
At the turn of the century, Sablon was in charge of hosting the European Championships in Belgium. Football- wise, Euro 2000 was a disaster for first-round losers Belgium. Still, big money was made as hosts, which Sablon promptly channelled towards an institutional rejig, when he became Belgian football’s technical director a year later. The rewards were reaped by today’s Belgium team, almost all of whom were in middle-school then.
Long story short, Sablon invested in integrating football with the school’s curriculum. Also, a chunk of the money was spent to extensively study the efficiency of these school-programmes and a larger chunk to learn from the French and Dutch systems. Finally, Belgium’s government was roped in to fund the construction of several special schools, where the best footballers would be transferred to keep their focus on turning pro, while still earning a degree.
The result? De Bruyne, Hazard and Lukaku of course, but also Thibaut Courtois, Dries Mertens and Nacer Chadli, to name just a few of the country’s superstars today. But Sablon’s system had unearthed more than just great players; it also gave rise to a great dream of being the best in the world. Not just in rankings (which they have already achieved) but at the biggest stage too—Euros and World Cups.
That dream nearly came to fruition at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, where Belgium went to the semi-final and tripped only against the defence of eventual-winners France (literally, for it was defender Samuel Umtiti’s header that was the difference in St. Petersburg) and had to settle for third place—their best-ever finish. While it lasted, they weren’t just threatening to be the best team in the tournament but also its most entertaining side.
Belgium finished that campaign with 16 goals (the most by any team), half of those scored by the devil’s trident – Lukaku (4), Hazard (3) and De Bruyne (1). When they wrapped up their tournament in St. Petersburg they were 25, 26 and 27 years old respectively (Hazard the oldest and Lukaku the youngest) and when they return to St. Petersburg for their opening fixture against Russia of the upcoming Euro, they will be 28, 29 and 30.
So, has the clock started to run out on Belgium’s golden generation? Not until Qatar at least, but either age or the expectations that comes with a big-money move to Real Madrid seems to have weighed down on Hazard, who isn’t what he once used to be at Chelsea. And as important as De Bruyne is to Pep Guardiola’s system at Manchester City, he too experienced his least impactful season in Manchester (relatively), due to a blend of both form and fitness. But De Bruyne’s return to the Belgium squad – after having recovered from getting his face smashed in during the Champions League final—will come as a great relief to not only manager Roberto Martinez, but also Lukaku upfront.
Lukaku has ostensibly gotten better with age, finishing as the second-highest scorer in the Serie A this season (with 24 goals and only behind Cristiano Ronaldo’s 29), each of those strikes so crucial in Inter Milan snatching the Scudetto away from Juventus after nine straight titles. Especially with De Bruyne back to assist him, there is no reason why Lukaku shouldn’t be able to carry that form to St. Petersburg, hoping to pick up from exactly where he and Belgium had left off at the last World Cup.