World Cup Soccer
Belgium's squad ahead of its friendly against the United States in Cleveland, Ohio

Rising, Regression and Rejuvenation at Belgium: A Soccer Story, 109 Years in the Making

Belgium's squad ahead of its friendly against the United States in Cleveland, Ohio
Antonio Martinez's image for:
"Rising, Regression and Rejuvenation at Belgium: A Soccer Story, 109 Years in the Making"
Caption: Belgium's squad ahead of its friendly against the United States in Cleveland, Ohio
Location: Cleveland, Ohio
Image by: Erik Drost

First playing an international match on May 1, 1904, Belgium would soon become one of the first European nations to play at the inaugural World Cup in 1930. Belgium enjoyed success early at the Olympics in the 1920s before embarking on Uruguay at the 1930 World Cup in Uruguay. It would be 50 after that first World Cup that Belgium would be in its golden period, having reached six straight World Cups.

Before 2012, however, Belgium had hit a nadir by missing out on five major tournaments, often struggling throughout qualifying. However, Belgium emphatically qualified for the 2014 World Cup, and its reward would be not only reaching its highest ranking ever, but also becoming one of the eight seeded nations for the 2014 World Cup.

History at major tournaments

In 11 previous World Cups, Belgium played 36 games, but has only won 10 games. It may not have won the World Cup, but Belgium is one of only seven nations since 1970 to have won the Fair Play Award, having done so in 2002.

One of four European nations that played at the inaugural World Cup in 1930, Belgium won its first World Cup match 40 years later, when they defeated El Salvador at the 1970 World Cup. It would be 12 years until Belgium won again, and it would also turn out to be one of the tournament’s major upsets in history. Playing its first World Cup match since 1970, Belgium faced defending tournament champions Argentina, which happened to be the opening game of the 1982 World Cup. and Belgium, two years after reaching the final of Euro 1980, upset Argentina 1-0. Four years later, Belgium returned to Mexico for the 1986 World Cup to have its best finish at the tournament.

Belgium often struggled to win in the World Cup, as they are the first nation to draw in five consecutive matches at the tournament. On top of those nine draws, Belgium lost 17 matches at the World Cup: one loss in particular saw Belgium finish third in their group despite winning their first two matches. That loss came at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. on June 29, 1994. There, it was Saudi Arabia that upset Belgium 1-0 when Saeed Al-Owairian weaved through the Belgian players to produce a spectacular goal. No loss paled in comparison its heartbreaking elimination from the 1990 World Cup. In its Round of 16 match against England, Belgium had played to a scoreless 118 minutes, and a penalty shootout loomed: that was until Belgium succumbed to a David Platt goal to lose 1-0 and be eliminated from the tournament.

Unlike its World Cup history, Belgium has rarely performed in the European Championships.  Belgium has only played in four European Championships (1972, 1980, 1984 and 2000) and played 12 matches total. It last played a European Championship match on June 19, 2000, when Turkey defeated Belgium 2-0 in a match that saw goalkeeper Filip de Wilde sent off.

The glory years and the key players

No question that Belgium’s golden generation came during its six trips to the World Cup. Over those two decades, Belgium had numerous players play in one of the world’s most organized nations. Two goalkeepers especially come to mind, given that they were the best goalkeepers in their respective World Cups: Jean-Marie Pfaff in 1986 and Michel Preud’homme in 1994.

One of three players to be on Belgium’s squad at four World Cups, Enzo Scifo had roots that traced back to Sicily. Nevertheless, he would become one of Belgium’s greatest players, first making waves during its 1986 World Cup qualifying campaign. Another of the three players was voted by Pele as one of the 125 greatest players: despite only scoring one goal for Belgium, Franky Van der Elst established himself as one of Belgium’s best defensively-minded players, and his work would earn him Belgium’s Golden Shoe in 1996.

But where did Belgium’s golden generation get their first break? It was at San Siro Stadium in Milan, Italy at Euro 1980, where Belgium topped a group that featured Italy, England and Spain. Its signature moment came on June 15, 1980, when Belgium defeated Spain 2-1. Belgium would reach the final against West Germany, where despite a brave performance, Belgium lost 2-1. But following the tournament, two figures emerged: Belgium’s greatest manager and its most capped player.

Guy Thys guided Belgium to five major tournaments, including Euro 1984, and his 50 wins are most in Belgium’s history. Belgium’s most capped player would later be nicknamed “Captain Courageous,” as Jan Ceulemans captained Belgium at the 1986 World Cup. Among his signature moments included goals that came against the Soviet Union (a 4-3 victory in the Round of 16), and Spain (the tying goal as Belgium won on a penalty shootout)

Rivalry in the Low Countries

Belgium may have recent revived its rivalry against France this year, given that these nations first ever meetings came on May 1, 1904. While it has enjoyed success against France over 109 years, Belgium’s main rival is the Netherlands. With 125 meetings all times (including two in the Olympics), Belgium and the Netherlands is the third most contested rivalry in international soccer. 

These 125 meetings include meetings in four successive World Cup qualifying campaigns, as well as qualifying for Euro 1976. In qualifying for the 1974 World Cup, Belgium allowed no goals in their six matches, but its two scoreless draws against the Netherlands, including the final game at Amsterdam saw the Netherlands eliminate Belgium on goal difference. The Netherlands continued to dominate Belgium by sweeping both meetings en route to reaching both Euro 1976 and the 1978 World Cup.

However, nearly four months after reach the final of Euro 1980, Belgium defeated the Netherlands 1-0 in their second qualifier. Despite losing 3-0 in their finale against, Belgium qualified for 1982 World Cup. Four years later, Belgium would repeat that feat against the Netherlands, although it had to do so via a playoff.

That was because both nations had finished as runners-up in their respective groups, and those groups’ runners-up would meet in a two-legged playoff to determine who would go to Mexico. In the first leg, Belgium won 1-0. Just over a month later, the Netherlands scored twice in a 12-minute span in the second half to led 2-0. Facing elimination, however, Belgium got a crucial away goal, thanks to Georges Grün in the 85th minute. Despite losing 2-1, Belgium advanced to the 1986 World Cup.

The teams only met five times in the 1990s, but each was as intriguing. On June 25, 1994, Belgium defeated the Netherlands 1-0 on a goal from Philippe Albert in the 65th minute. Nearly 30 months later, Belgium faced the Netherlands in qualifying for the 1998 World Cup. In a nine-month span, Belgium lost 3-0 in Brussels and 3-1 at Rotterdam. Amazingly, Belgium survived a playoff and its reward would be a spot at the 1998 World Cup. Belgium’s first match would be the Netherlands: the opening match saw Belgium have a man advantage late, but failed to capitalize and could only manage a scoreless draw.

These nations, co-hosts for Euro 2000, met in a friendly nine months before the tournament. At the time, Belgium had only won twice since the 1998 World Cup, and lost four home games in 1999, the most recent being a 4-3 reverse against Finland. The Netherlands was no better, as they had not won a match since Oct. 10, 1998. But after the 90 minutes, both nations would have its highest scoring draw ever.

Rock bottom after Asia

Robert Waseige managed Belgium at Euro 2000 and the 2002 World Cup, the latter seeing Belgium eliminated by Brazil at the Round of 16 at the 2002 World Cup. Having had recent successes at Genk and Anderlecht, Aime Anthuenis succeeded Waseige. Unfortunately, Anthuenis won only 12 of 29 matches, and Belgium missed out on a playoff for Euro 2004 (on goal difference) and regressed further by finishing  fourth in qualifying for the 2006 World Cup. 

Succeeding Anthuenis was Rene Vandereycken, renowned for having scored Belgium’s goal in the final at Euro 1980. Vandereycken fared no better, particularly after Belgium lost 2-0 at Finland in Euro 2008 qualifying that featured a bizarre animal situation. Following that loss, Belgium sunk to its lowest ever ranking, and would finish fifth in qualifying for Euro 2008. Belgium struggled in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, where they would finish fourth. After losing twice to Bosnia-Herzegovina in five days, Vandereycken was fired on Apr. 7, 2009.

Franky Vercauteren would be the interim manager for only five games, before Dick Advocaat would take over, and he too only managed five games, although he wound three of the five matches. Following Advocaat was George Leekens, who was manager for Belgium at the 1998 World Cup. Leekens did try to turn Belgium’s fortunes in qualifying for Euro 2012, but Belgium only finished third and miss out on another tournament.

Rebirth with youth

On May 15, 2012, a former player turned senator succeeded Leekens as Belgium’s manager. A member of four World Cup squads, Marc Wilmots is also Belgium’s leading scorer at the World Cup with five goals. Ahead of its World Cup qualifying campaign, Wilmots was tasked with turning around a nation that had struggled mightily, but also inspire a new generation that first began during Belgium’s successful fourth place finish in the 2008 Olympics. These young players would be featured on Belgium’s squad, but with little success. But since Sept. 2012, Wilmots injected new life into Belgium’s newest golden generation, a feat that would see Belgium become the first European nation to be guaranteed at least a playoff. In addition to its success in qualifying, Belgium also grabbed a vital victory at the United States in Cleveland in June 2013.

Belgium’s successes since Wilmots took over start with goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who kept six clean sheets in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers. Leading Belgium in scoring was Kevin De Bruyne with four goals during qualifying.

Before Belgium’s match at Croatia on Oct. 11, 2013, Romelu Lukaku had an impressive season at West Bromwich Albion, capped off by a spectacular hat trick in the club’s season finale, a 5-5 draw against Manchester United. But, Lukaku topped that performance by scoring both goals in Belgium’s 2-1 victory at Croatia, a result that sent Belgium to the World Cup. The next month, Belgium would reach its highest position ever, and would be seeded at the next World Cup for the first time since 1994.

Although it recently dropped out of the top ten in the World Rankings, Belgium has managed to be reborn, and a young crop of players is looking to make a new chapter in their history and continue its long history by having its best World Cup yet. Whether Belgium does well or not, one thing is certain: Belgium and the Red Devils are back in the world scene of soccer.


More about this author: Antonio Martinez