It wasn’t so terribly long ago that Belgium, the budding colossus of international soccer, was in danger of dissolving as a country. Just as Vincent Kompany, Eden Hazard, Marouane Fellaini and so many others were climbing to stardom, Flanders threatened to secede from the rest of Belgium because of a complicated spat over a re-drawn voting district.
Had it done so, this fabulously talented generation of Belgians would have been lopped in two. Ultimately, it took a world record 541 days to finally form a new government — more than twice as long as Iraq’s previous record — but by the end of 2011, Belgium was a functional country once more. That cleared the way for the Red Devils, as they’re nicknamed, to resume their assault on the world.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Belgium, a country the size of Maryland with just 11 million citizens, were the world’s great overachievers — the Uruguay of their day. Starting in 1982, they made the second round in five out of six World Cups, topping out in the semifinals in 1986. They did it with sound organization and savvy defense. But after Marc Wilmots’s headed go-ahead goal was wrongly disallowed against Brazil in the Round of 16 in 2002, Belgium never made it back to a major tournament.
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The domestic league, once one of the most respected in Europe, was a shambles by then. The Bosman Arrest had wrecked the league’s ability to compete with bigger countries after Jean-Marc Bosman, a Belgian no less, took his club RFC Liège to court and won soccer players their free agency in 1995. After that, the youth game produced little talent of note and the foreigners flooding the league were second-rate at best.
So the Belgian federation, weary of the decline, doubled down on player development, pumping in resources and convincing its powerhouse clubs Anderlecht, Racing Genk and Standard Liège to shift their focus to youth. Before long, those clubs began churning out the likes of Kompany, Fellaini, Romelu Lukaku, Christian Benteke, Kevin De Bruyne, Steven Defour and Axel Witsel.
But, like for the rest of the country, it took the new golden boys some time to learn to get along. Friction with the older, more pedestrian generation demanding respect ruined several qualifying campaigns. In 2009, the entire national team medical staff quit in unison in protest of the prodigies’ affected behavior. The Belgian press was rife with stories of this gang of wunderkinds hopping hotel fences to go clubbing during national team camps.
Put in charge after Belgium didn’t even make the qualifying playoffs for Euro 2012, Wilmots forged a disciplined and cohesive side utilizing his players’ myriad attacking talents, wherein stars agreed to be role players without undermining the collective chemistry. The Belgians didn’t lose a single game in World Cup qualifying, winning eight of ten, including all five away games in Croatia, Macedonia, Scotland, Serbia and Wales. They qualified for Brazil in October, when they shot up to fifth place of the FIFA World Rankings.
Due for a little luck, the Belgians got a pillow-soft World Cup draw, too. Their Group H will pit them against Russia, Algeria and South Korea, all very manageable opponents. But that has only served to heighten the hype surrounding this young team. And there may lay the rub.
Of the aforementioned players, Kompany will be the oldest in Brazil, at 28. Goalkeepers Simon Mignolet and Thibaut Courtois are 25 and 21, respectively. Defenders Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen are 25 and 26. Thomas Vermaelen is 28 as well. Move up the field and the players only get younger. Moussa Dembélé , Nacer Chadli and Adnan Januzaj are 26, 24 and 19. Benteke (who will not travel to Brazil due to injury) and Lukaku are 23 and 20. And, well, you get the idea. Only Daniel van Buyten, 36, has been to a major tournament and they are kept around for their experience.
While the the squad has set off on very accomplished club careers, they have done very little internationally. It takes more than talent to thrive at a World Cup. It takes a fluidity in the tricky language of international soccer. And there seem to few Belgians who speak it conversationally, if at all.
The other threat is overexertion. There isn’t a single Belgian starter who doesn’t play for a major club in a major league anymore. The list of employers for the 23 players called into the March 5 friendly with the Côte d’Ivoire, when Belgium squandered a 2-0 lead and had to settle for a 2-2 tie, was staggering. Ten played in the Premier League; four in the Bundesliga; two each in La Liga, Serie A and Russia. Just three played in Belgium. And like any major soccer nation, this should concern Wilmots. These are mostly clubs — Chelsea and Atletico Madrid and Manchester City and Bayern Munich — that played for prizes weeks before Belgium assembled its World Cup camp.
But then perhaps these are luxury problems. And maybe Belgium is lucky to have a team at all.