Countdown to World Cup: The Red Devils’ long climb to the ultimate competition


With their first World Cup participation in more than a decade and a talented generation of players in epic form, the dog days are finally over for the national football team

The Red Devils at a recent training camp on the Flemish coast

Crashing football’s carnival

Word association with Brazil might get you some of the following: beach, Amazon, bikini, samba, favela, Carnival. But it will always get this: football. More than any other country on the planet, Brazil is synonymous with the “beautiful game”, itself a term coined by perhaps its greatest exponent, football legend Pelé.

The Brazilian players are the only ones with five stars on their shirts, one for each of their World Cup prizes, and – who knows? – maybe a sixth will be sewn on shortly. This year’s World Cup in Brazil is thus long overdue.

Also long overdue is a Belgian presence at the party. The last time the Rode Duivels, or Red Devils, took part in a major tournament was the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea where they were knocked out by, of all sides, Brazil.

But even then, it was close. After a goalless 35 minutes, their Captain Marvel of the day, Marc Wilmots, headed the ball into the Brazilian net, only for the referee to disallow it for a spurious foul.

A vision, a coach and a turnaround

Wilmots today is, of course, the Belgian coach, whose side play their first World Cup game in 12 years when they line up against Algeria on 17 June at the Mineirão Stadium in Belo Horizonte. They then play their other Group H opponents, Russia, on 22 June at the Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, and South Korea on 26 June at the Arena de São Paulo.

But fans will obviously be hoping they are still in the game after that.

There is more than a good chance that they will be. The team is already being compared to previous best sides, like the Red Devils who finished runners-up in the 1980 European Championship to West Germany and secured fourth place at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.

But lean years followed once the big money flowed into the sport after the millennium – the standard of the Jupiler League dropped, and the national side struggled. Since co-hosting Euro 2000 with the Netherlands, Belgium has failed to reach five out of six major tournaments.

There are many reasons for the turnaround, including the “development vision” for football in schools by the Belgian football association, the KVBV, in practice for 10 years, with constant adaptations based on the feedback of teachers, youth coaches and clubs.

But credit is also due to Wilmots. Capped 70 times by Belgium, with 28 international goals to his name, Wilmots, 45, has instilled a sense of self-belief into the already awesomely talented generation of Belgian players. A former Mechelen and Sint-Truiden dynamo, he has made the Red Devils one of the most organised, disciplined and frankly, difficult teams to play against.

Strong English connection

And what of the players themselves? Years ago, other football fans would have struggled to name a single Belgian footballer, but now they grace some of the finest sides in Europe, including this year’s champions in Germany (Bayern Munich’s Daniel Van Buyten), Spain (Atlético de Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois) and England (Manchester City and national captain Vincent Kompany).

The English connection is especially tight: all top seven finishers in this year’s Premiership (Man City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal, Everton, Tottenham, Manchester United) have at least one Belgian player on their books – and 11 of the 23 players in the Red Devils squad are based there.

Most pundits actually rate Belgium rather than England to succeed in Brazil. It is thus likely that Belgium will be the second team of choice for most English fans this month – or their first choice if and when England inevitably crashes out.

In fine form

But it is not just their employers’ names that make the Red Devils stand out. Let’s start at the back: Courtois, named as the Champions League goalkeeper of the season, competes for the position with Liverpool’s Simon Mignolet and Zulte Waregem’s Sammy Bossut.

In defence, Kompany (pictured, above right) is amongst the finest centre backs in the game today. His defensive partner, Arsenal captain Thomas Vermaelen, has a deserved reputation as a solid stopper, and Jan Vertonghen is one of the first players on the Tottenham team sheet.

Van Buyten, at 35, is entering his seventh campaign at Bayern Munich; Anderlecht’s Anthony Vanden Borre has proved himself exceptionally versatile on the right; and full back Tony Alderweireld has already impressed in his first season with Atlético de Madrid.

In midfield, Eden Hazard’s exploits with Chelsea won him the Young Player of the Year award. However, Chelsea, which currently has four Belgian players on its books, are regretting letting Kevin De Bruyne (pictured, above left) transfer to German side Wolfsburg, where he has settled in comfortably.

Marouane Fellaini was Manchester United’s signing last summer from Everton, where he developed a powerful midfield partnership with fellow Belgian Kevin Mirallas.

In attack, the super-fast Romelu Lukaku’s epic form at Everton has already made him one of the candidates for the Golden Shoe at the World Cup. Aston Villa’s Christian Benteke – sadly sitting out the World Cup with an injury – is a Young Player of the Year nominee. And Dries Mertens has scored an impressive 11 goals in his first season with Italian side Napoli.

A comeback to remember

Perhaps the most exciting prospect, however, is a player who has only just pulled on his Belgian jersey: Adnan Januzaj. Born in Brussels 18 years ago to Kosovar-Albanian parents, he has been mesmerising in his first season with Manchester United. But it was only in April that he formally confirmed his international allegiance with Belgium. For all his experience playing in front of 80,000 fans at Old Trafford, the World Cup will be another level of intensity for Januzaj.

Even Wilmots knows that the odds are against Kompany and company hoisting the golden trophy at the end of the final on 13 July. But those odds are still the lowest they have ever been: bookmakers are offering 22 to one, making them fifth favourites, after Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Spain.

So for all those rooting for the Red Devils, this World Cup is not just about marking a comeback, but making it one to remember.

Where to watch the games

In Brussels, giant screens have been set up to show the Belgian matches in the Koning Boudewijn stadium, in Vorst-Nationaal and outdoors on Koningin Astridplein in Jette and Dumonplein in Sint-Pieters-Woluwe. Vincent Kompany’s new sports bar on the Grote Markt, Good Kompany, is one of many in the capital, including Fat Boys on Luxemburgplein, O’Reilly’s on Beursplein, and the Café du Mundial on Nieuwe Graanmarkt, that will air the matches for one and all.

In Antwerp, Sportpaleis is showing the games on a big screen, as is Kelly’s Irish Pub on De Keyserlei and the Sportbar Antwerpen on Ernest Van Dijckkaai.

Ghent is showing the games at Flanders Expo, while its sports bars include Celtic Towers Irish Pub on St Michielshelling and Patrick Foleys on Recollettenlei, both in the centre.

photo top by Bruno Fahy/BELGA
photo above by Yves Herman/Reuters/Corbis

Naked footballers

For fans who want to see another, erm, side of the Red Devils, the Botanique in Brussels is home to a photography exhibition focused exclusively on the national sports heroes – and their naked torsos. With MMXIV Les Diables/De Duivels, Flemish photographer Stephan Vanfleteren – a star in his own right – has shot a series of sober yet arresting black-and-white portraits in which the bare-chested players loom large like Greek gods.
Until 17 August at Botanique, 236 Koningsstraat, Brussels

With their first World Cup participation in more than a decade and a talented generation of players in epic form, the dog days are finally over for the national football team.

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Flemish football

Reaping the benefits of their improved youth academies, Flemish football clubs have become reasonably successful in European competitions in recent years and many players routinely join leading European clubs.
Players - Famous players from Brussels and Flanders include Vincent Kompany, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne and Thomas Vermaelen.
Clubs - Some of the best-known local clubs include KV Mechelen, Zulte Waregem, AA Ghent and Club Brugge.
Anderlecht - The Brussels-based RSC Anderlecht is the only Belgian club in the 2013-2014 Uefa Champions League.
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