Quarter-finals: France – Colombia – Belgium – Costa Rica
World Cup progress: Quarter-finals
Team rating: 7
Top scorer: De Bruyne, Fellaini, Lukaku, Mertens, Origi, Vertonghen (1)
The Red Devils lived up to their pre-tournament billing as dark horses but were ultimately undone by international veterans Argentina in the last eight, writes Livio Caferoglu.
Belgium's bright future
Once their failure at the 2002 World Cup was set in stone, Belgian football found itself in crisis. The Red Devils had qualified for a national record of six consecutive editions until then, but the old guard had carried the country for too long, and thus the inevitable happened. With no reserves incoming, the future looked bleak.
In truth, it was a rotten period for the sport in the Benelux region. The Netherlands – curiously then under current incumbent Louis van Gaal – failed to even make the finals. Still, no such worries existed for the Oranje, who had the burgeoning talents of Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart ready to break through in time for Euro 2004.
A lost decade it may have been, but the Belgians used the time wisely to conduct a mass revolution at grassroots level. Taking inspiration from the likes of France and Germany, systems to maximise youth potential were implemented, and it immediately bore fruits as success was seen in the form of a fourth-placed finish at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Four years later, they went one better. Led by former midfielder Marc Wilmots, the Red Devils dropped just four points in qualifying to book their place in the 2014 World Cup. Preparations for the big kick-off were further enhanced by protagonists Thibaut Courtois and Vincent Kompany – both of whom enjoyed trophy-laden seasons with their clubs.
Despite being installed as favourites in Group H, Belgium were frustrated in the first half of their opener against Algeria, with Vertonghen’s shirt-pull in the box allowing Sofiane Feghouli to take control from the penalty spot. However, Marouane Fellaini and Dries Mertens came off the bench after the interval to grab two goals in a much-needed 2-1 turnaround.
Both players were duly rewarded with starting positions against Russia for their heroics, but it was another supersub who came to the rescue for the Red Devils. With the scores tied at 0-0, coming into the 90th minute, 19-year-old Divock Origi, who had only one full season with Lille behind him, combined with Eden Hazard before smashing home the winner.
The Belgians – with one eye on the Last 16 – rested many of their stars against South Korea. As a result, the team played without the same vigour that was evident in their first two encounters, yet Vertonghen still emerged with the goods in the second half. Steven Defour, on his tournament debut, was sent off after a two-footed lunge on Kim Shin-Wook.
After coming out of the group unscathed, Belgium had passed their first test with flying colours, and the United States awaited them in the first knockout phase. However, their struggles in breaking down opponents transpired again, firing over 30 attempts in vain at the Americans’ goal, which was guarded by a seemingly-impenetrable Tim Howard. Fortunately, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku rose to the challenge in extra time to seal a hard-fought 2-1 victory.
Scenes of 1986, when Belgium reached the semi-finals with the likes of Jan Ceulemans and Enzo Scifo in their armoury, replayed in the minds of their supporters. But much like then, they faced two-time winners Argentina, and a similar outcome was set to ensue. Another impotent attacking display meant Gonzalo Higuain’s early strike was enough to send the Albiceleste through at their expense.
There is no doubt that Belgium will continue to be a major player in international tournaments for at least the next decade. Experience will be a crucial factor in their development, but their inability to ruthlessly unlock stubborn defences is a pressing matter that must be addressed if they want to be mentioned in the same breath as other elite nations.
Wilmots must be applauded for his stewardship of Belgium’s young charges up until now. The safety net of reaching their present level must now be swapped for greater risk-taking and courage to mix their game up.
The Coach – Marc Wilmots
His country’s leading goalscorer at World Cup finals, Wilmots enjoyed an illustrious playing career as an attacking midfielder before briefly foraying into politics. However, his skills were better utilised leading the Red Devils, instilling both faith and discipline in a young squad. An unbeaten route to the quarter-finals followed, but a below-par showing against Argentina was marred by his decision to substitute national hero Eden Hazard with 15 minutes to go.
Player of the Tournament – Divock Origi
The 19-year-old had started just 15 professional matches before this summer’s World Cup but burst on to the scene with a series of impressive cameo appearances, which exhibited his deadly concoction of pace and strength and culminated in a starting berth for the Last 16 clash with USA after netting the winner against Russia. His performances in Brazil rightly saw him linked with a summer move away from Lille.
Memorable moment – Tous ensemble!
The Belgian population went into mourning following their team’s unfortunate exit from the World Cup, but the squad wasted no time in penning a lengthy, yet heartfelt, letter, emphasising their appreciation for the ‘best fans in the world’.
|26-Jun-14||South Korea||0-1||Belgium||Group H|
|1-Jul-14||Belgium||2-1||USA||Round of 16|
|15||D||Daniel Van Buyten||5||–||–|
|21||D||Anthony Vanden Borre||1||–||–|
|7||M||Kevin De Bruyne||4||1||2|
For a complete review of the 2014 World Cup, check out the next issue of Soccer Italia, written by the team at Football Italia and available on worldwide subscription.