The foundations behind Belgium’s dream team
Belgium knocked off World Cup favorite Brazil 2-1 on Friday in the quarterfinals, moving on to the semifinals to face France. Though Brazil played well and managed to have 26 shots on the night, with nine of them on target, Belgium showed why they are third on the FIFA ranking. The Red Devils took a commanding 2-0 lead in the first half, looking confident and effective in the process. The Belge individual qualities shined, as we saw an inspired Thibaut Courtois who made numerous key saves, including one in the 94th minute to keep Neymar out.
The unexpected victory means Belgium will play in the semifinals for the second time in history. The first time they reached this deed was in Mexico 86’, when the first “golden generation” was on its prime. Coached by Guy Thys, the team enjoyed a hugely successful decade, qualifying for all the major tournaments and achieving their country’s best ever result by coming fourth in that World Cup. A quiet period followed those years of victory, and Belgium remained in the shadow of international football for many years.
The masterplan behind the miracle
So how did they managed to rise again as a serious contender for the World Cup? It wasn’t coincidence or luck; the second Golden Generation of Belgium has among its members world-class players: Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin de Bruyne, Thibaut Courtois, Marouane Fellaini, Vincent Kompany and many more that are all part of this dream team.
Hazard, De Bruyne and Lukaku have scored 7 goals among the three of them during the World Cup.
One may be induced to think that the reason behind the Belge miracle is the great individualities the team possess, nevertheless, Belgium possess a depth to their squad that is envied across Europe. The under-21 team is top of its qualifying group, and no team won more games at the recent European Under-17 Championships that took place in England. The team we’re watching at the World Cup is not just a golden generation, it is a steady stream of collective and individual talent.
It all began in the early 2000’, when Michel Sablon assumed the national technical direction of the Belgian FA. The belge team was in decadence at the time, but the visionary man decided to leave his blueprint, a 10-year plan, that proved to be necessary for the emerging generation. Belgium had to focus on maximizing the potential at their disposal, rather than depending on natural talent as other nations.
Rather than giving up on obvious talents, the plan sought to nurture them to help fulfil their potential. “In 2001, we established a new vision to develop young players in Belgium,” Sablon said in an interview with Esquire UK; this vision involved among other things giving all the clubs “a brochure which detailed how to best manage player development”.
According to Sablon, 95% of the clubs followed his instructions. In addition, at every national age group it was decided that all teams would play the game with the same method: a high-tempo and flexible 4–3–3 system. The technical revolution that occurred in Belgium was amazing, but the success of the Belgian side cannot be attributed just to tactical stuff; The present Belgian team is one of the most diverse in the whole tournament. It is multi-ethnic as well as multi-talented. The confluence of cultures, races and origins may be one of the reasons behind Belge success.
Multiculturality, Belgium’s staple
It seems as a paradox the unity and harmony displayed in the national team, considering the strong social and political division that characterizes the country. Uniquely in Europe, Belgium is almost exactly split by language: half the population, the Flemish, speak a Dutch dialect; the other half, the Walloons, speak French. The French side have always felt Belge, but the Flemish part has advocated several times for a separation.
Things have worsened since the beginning of the decade: for an 18-month period from 2010 to 2011, these intrinsic rivalries prevented Belgium from having any government at all. A complex federal constitution, reinforced by a multi-party system of proportional representation, has only made matters worse. While the Belgian football team has been going from strength to strength, the country itself has started to look ungovernable.
Footballing nationalism, in contrast to the political version, is becoming more pragmatic all the time. The sport is beautiful in that sense: unity among members of the same country occurs not because of imposed and somehow “fictitious” identities, but because the love for a game. As David Runciman states: “It is sometimes said that the monarchy and the football team are the only things that really unite Belgians. For this reason, football occasionally suffers from inflated expectations that it will help break through the political impasse (the king can’t do it on his own). If Belgium wins this World Cup, won’t Belgians forget their political differences? Unfortunately, no.”
The reporter of the New Republic goes on: “France’s triumph in the 1998 tournament stands as a cautionary example of what happens if you expect too much. France won that tournament with another wonderfully diverse team. As French citizens of every shade and background celebrated together, there was excited talk about the dawn of a new age of multicultural tolerance. It did not happen. Nationalist politicians were soon complaining that many members of the winning side were not really French, like the Ghanaian-born Marcel Desailly. French politics in the period since has become more strident and intolerant. The National Front has continued its relentless rise.”
Despite political differences, we’re sure of something: Flemish and French Belgians alike are proud about their team, and high hopes are placed in the squad commanded by Eden Hazard. Let’s hope the success of the team helps in someway to heal the wounds that polarization has made to this tiny nation. We’re looking forward to seeing a semifinal that promises to be memorable: France and Belgium have had a long and strong rivalry, and they both will go out to the pitch willing to leave everything, reach the final and take glory home.