Belgium – a nation known for its illustrious chocolatiers. A country in which you can find a myriad of beers, culture, moules-frites and languages all in one place. Tucked away neatly between the epicentre of Europe’s tourism hotspots, it is a must-visit for anyone suffering a severe case of wanderlust.
However, the nation is host to more than just good food and the European Union’s headquarters. Belgium is home to De Rode Duivels, Les Diables Rouges, Die Roten Teufel – The Red Devils. Europe’s latest football powerhouse.
When thinking of Belgian footballers the list is absolutely endless. From Manchester City‘s midfield-maestro Kevin De Bruyne, to Chelsea‘s Eden Hazard and his blistering counter-attacks. The quality of the Belgium national team is a sight to behold. Yet for those old enough to remember, the Red Devils were not always as highly regarded for their star-studded line-up.
It would be down-right ignorant to dismiss the likes of Michel Preud’homme and Belgium’s “football grandmaster” Raymond Braine. Like every other national team, each generation had its own poster boy. However, the fact that this rise in quality is a fairly recent occurrence cannot be overlooked.
The early years
In similarity to many other football nations, the beautiful game was introduced to the Belgians from the British Isles. The practice of the sport began in October 1863 after an Irish student attended the Josephites College in Melle with a familiar looking leather ball. This, in turn, made Belgium one of the first countries in mainland Europe to play association football.
The Red Devils competed in their first ‘tournament’ just under 30 years later. They thwarted the Netherlands four times, thus planting the seed which would grow to become one of Europe’s longest standing rivalries. These matches were not recognised by FIFA due to some English players being fielded for the home side. It would only take three more years though before Belgium played their first official match. Having played out a 3-3 draw against Les Blues of France, Belgium’s record was looking good.
A few years later, the players donned their new nickname – ‘The Red Devils’ – thanks to the colour of their shirts. They then wore this in pride as they achieved gold in the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp after their Czechoslovak counterparts abandoned the pitch.
These winning ways weren’t to last forever it seemed. Over the next decade, De Rode Duivels would fail to win a single match at their first three FIFA World Cup tournaments. As other nations across Europe experienced great success, Belgium would have to wait another 42 years before they could make a mark on the international stage.
Fast forward to the summer of 1980. Ronald Reagan is president of the United States. Nelson Mandela is still imprisoned. And, the 8-bit yellow ball known as Pac-Man has taken the world by storm. The sun is shining and everyone is struck once again with football fever. UEFA Euro 1980 Italia is on the horizon.
The Golden Age: EURO Italia ’80
After four years of management under Guy Thys, the Red Devils headed into the tournament at third in the UEFA rankings. The optimism and guidance under the leadership of Thys would be crucial in the following weeks. Both England and Spain were amongst their opponents as well as the hosts, Italy.
Their first game saw them come face to face to a strong England side. Despite trailing to the Three Lions, an equaliser from the legendary midfielder, Jan Ceulemans, saw the spoils shared. Next up was La Roja. Once again, it seemed that points were to be distributed evenly between the two sides. However, former Club Brugge veteran, Julien Cools, managed to steal the winnings for Belgium.
Their final opponent came in the form of the Azzurri. It was in front of over 40,000 football mad Italians, in the heart of Rome, at the iconic Stadio Olimpico, that Belgium would make their way to the final. After playing out a goalless draw, Les Diables Rouges edged past the Italians into first place. This would be Belgium’s first appearance in a major tournament final in their history.
But of course – East Germany had to ruin the fun. Horst Hrubesch fired his German teammates ahead within ten minutes, showcasing the sheer quality of Die Mannschaft. A lifeline was handed to Belgium after 75 minutes in the form of a penalty. Striker René Vandereycken speared hope into the hearts of the Belgians once more, only for them to be crushed shortly after. Hrubesch wormed his way in with just two minutes to spare, sending the Germans into a frenzy and showing the Belgians the door.
The Golden Age: Mexico ’86
Regarded as one of the most exciting FIFA World Cups in history, Mexico ’86 would turn out to be one of Belgium’s most successful tournaments. Fellow European teams such as Italy, England and West Germany had already etched their names in history. Belgium wanted to do the same.
The competition format arguably saved their skin as a third-place finish allowed Die Roten Teufel to advance to the knockout stages. With a record of; loss, win, draw – the odds didn’t look in Belgium’s favour as they set up to take on the USSR. The full-time whistle blew with the scores in a 2-2 deadlock. However, Nico Claesen’s 110th-minute strike was enough to keep the Soviets out and send Belgium to the quarter-finals.
Paths were crossed once more as Spain took Belgium the full 90 and more. Ultimately the clash was finalised by penalties. An impeccable Belgian shoot-out saw them win 4-5 and allowed them to progress to the semi-finals for the first time.
Unfortunately for the Red Devils, their roadblock came in the form of Diego Maradona and his Albiceleste. The curly-headed Argentine snatched a brace in the iconic Estadio Azteca forcing Belgium into the third-place play-offs. There they were met by France, who were not going to settle for fourth, beating the Belgians 2-4 after extra time.
Guy Thys would carry on as manager through to 1991 in hopes of replicating his incredible feats. Despite not bettering his performances, Thys would go down as one of Belgium’s highest regarded managers.
The Premier League invasion
Like flicking on a switch, there was a moment around the early 2010s in which Belgian talent stepped up a gear. A Belgian competing in the top-flight of English football has never been an uncommon sight, but it would soon become a must-have attribute for Premier League clubs.
To date, the Premier League currently hosts 15 Belgians within their ranks, all of whom have represented their nation at some level. From Tottenham Hotspur’s veteran defender Jan Vertonghen, to Manchester United’s titan of a forward Romelu Lukaku. Belgians have become a household name in England’s top-flight.
Not to forget former players that are now still active such as Thibaut Courtois, Kevin Mirallas and Simon Mignolet to name a few. As well as other big names playing Europe’s top leagues like Dries Mertens and Thomas Meunier.
This migration to Europe’s top tiers has undeniably impacted the quality which we see on display today.
The stats don’t lie
After a respectful quarter-final finish for Les Diables Rouges in 2014, they made their way to a third-place victory over England last year. Now, the Belgians find themselves top of the FIFA rankings ahead of current world champions, France. It isn’t exactly hard to argue that this is the best Belgium team in history.
But what better way to back that up, than with numbers. Unlike their fellow European counterparts, the teams’ all-time top goalscorer and most-capped player are still active and at the peak of their careers. Romelu Lukaku has collected an incredible 45 goals at international level, with much more likely to follow. Storming 15 goals ahead of Bernard Voorhoof and Paul Van Himst, the United man is Belgium’s most prolific striker.
Jan Vertonghen and his staggering 110 appearances for De Rode Duivels makes him the most-capped player in Belgian history. It isn’t just the Spurs man who features on this list, however. Six of the top ten most-capped players now feature in the current squad on a regular basis. The talents of; Axel Witsel, Eden Hazard, Toby Alderweireld, Marouane Fellaini and Vincent Kompany also grace the list.
Analysts and bookies alike would marvel at the sight of such numbers. Which thus leaves us wondering, where do they possibly go from here?
The road ahead
Strong, powerful, elegant and deadly are just some words to describe this group of world-class players. Despite this rise in overall quality, the Belgians still await to add silverware to their trophy cabinet. But, with UEFA Euro 2020 just over a year away, Belgium will have as good a shot as any at lifting the trophy.
Stars such as Hazard, Lukaku and De Bruyne still have plenty of years to deliver at international level. We can only revel in the thought of what could be a future European or world champion side. Even if the black, yellow and red nation were to fail with this extravagant squad, Belgium already has a back-up plan in place.
If their star-studded line-up wasn’t exciting enough, the nation of 11 million people has an abundance of hot young prospects ready to see their name in lights. One of whom is Leicester City’s newest asset, 21-year-old Youri Tielemans. The former AS Monaco youngster has already bagged 19 caps for Les Diables Rouges. His recent transition to the Premier League may see him grab many more.
Having already made appearances at the last World Cup and a handful in the Champions League, Tielemans is just one of many ‘ones-to-watch’. Alongside him follow the younger brothers of two of the Premier League’s show-stoppers; Jordan Lukaku and Thorgan Hazard. Regulars for Lazio and Borussia Mönchengladbach respectively, the two certainly have big boots to fill if they are to achieve the success of their older brothers. However, playing in the top tiers of European football, this shouldn’t be too much of a difficult task.
At a glance, there is no denying the buckets of quality pouring out of the relatively small nation at this moment in time. The next few years will be crucial in deciding Belgium’s international status. With UEFA Euro 2020 on the horizon and the 2022 FIFA World Cup shortly after, we could be seeing champions in the making.
History and statistics mean nothing to some sceptics. Belgium could well and truly drop off the radar before we know it. That is the magic and unpredictability of football. But after their last few outings, this Belgian side is looking more than promising. Whether it just be something in the water or an extremely good run of form, De Rode Duivels are making history. You really don’t want to miss it.