The match with European giants Italy on 13th June 2016 will be Belgium’s first appearance in a European Championship Finals for 16 years after failing to qualify for the previous three editions of the tournament. Their last appearance in Europe’s premier competition was one to forget after a 2-0 defeat to Turkey saw them crash out at the group stage on home soil – perhaps the only silver lining was a change in mentality which has enabled the country of just 11 million people to go on to produce numerous world class players in the last few years.
In fact, Belgium haven’t had a great deal of luck in the Euros having made just four appearances to date – they finished third in 1972 on home soil and were beaten by West Germany with a cruel 88th minute winner in the final in 1980. The last time the nation actually qualified without hosting the competition was in 1984 when Communism was in full swing with Belgium beating East Germany 2-1 both home and away to top their group and reach the finals in France.
The current squad is expected to do much better which is reflected in their current FIFA ranking of the second best team in the world behind Argentina. The coach Marc Wilmots has done an excellent job since taking over in 2012 and will be expecting his team to at least reach the semi-finals – a realistic expectation as one of the favourites for the competition.
Craig Muncey who has been watching the team develop over the past few years took some time out to answer a few questions about the country’s upcoming campaign which begins in in a month’s time at the Stade des Lumières against Italy.
Belgium qualified for Euro 2016 at the top of Group B – Who were the stand-out players during the qualifying process?
Belgium have many recognised names in the footballing world such as Eden Hazard, Vincent Kompany, Thibaut Courtois, etc, but the two players who really stood out during qualifiers were midfielders Radja Nainggolan of AS Roma and the much maligned Marouane Fellaini of Manchester United.
28-year-old Nainggolan is a really good player in midfield in both attack and defence, whilst Fellaini was Belgium’s second highest scorer with four important goals during the group stage – only Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard scored more with five apiece.
Belgium have undergone somewhat of a revival over the last five years or so – what has been the reason for such a change in fortunes?
Belgium realised a decade or more ago, that they do not have the financial resources to compete with top European countries, so youth development is vital in the country – and what a fantastic job they have done with their work in this area. So many players who have come through this system have gone onto play for big European clubs and in particular, Racing Genk, Standard Liège and Anderlecht are recognised as some of the top teams in Europe at bringing players through their respective youth systems.
Belgium have been drawn into a difficult group alongside Italy, Sweden and the Republic of Ireland – how do you think it will go?
They are in a relatively tough group but I expect them to advance, with a minimum expectation of a quarter-finals berth. They certainly have the players and the skill – perhaps it is just a case of getting some tournament luck to help them along to the latter rounds.
Regarding the group, I expect Belgium or Italy to top it and advance to the next round. If Belgium finish second in the group, they are potentially looking at facing Portugal in the second round, or if they top the group then a tie against Croatia. Two extremely tough games but Belgium do posses enough ability to defeat both.
What is public opinion about their chances?
Public opinion is generally one of optimism though cautious optimism as the Belgians know there are better teams in the competition.
Similarly to the World Cup two years ago, Belgium have a number of players playing at top clubs across Europe so should go into the tournament as a likely contender to win the whole championship. The challenge will getting all those star names to play as a team and buy into the ethos of the coach.
Who should we look out for in France – Michy Batshuayi is a real star in the making by all accounts?
Batshuayi is a youngster with massive potential, but he is not even guaranteed making the squad for the Euros, which just shows the strength in depth they currently have throughout the team. Players to look out for in my view are Eden Hazard , Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku.
The Everton striker Lukaku is an interesting one to watch – he has been criticised for his performances for the national side having only scored 12 goals in 43 appearances to date. Perhaps his finishing could improve as he has often been accused of not finding the back of the net enough given the chances he has had.
However if the rumours are true linking him with a move away this summer, expect Lukaku to use this tournament as a shop window to show his undoubted ability. When he is in the mood he is a handful for any team as his form in the English Premier League this season has proved.
Are there any potential star players coming through the youth system?
Batshuayi has already been mentioned, but players such as Dennis Praet, Leander Dendoncker and one player who I think will be a major star in the coming years, midfielder Youri Tielemans of Anderlecht are all ones to watch.
Midfielder Tielemans is still only 18-years-old but at the time of writing has already made 129 appearances for his club and played in the Champions League when only 16. For a player of his age, has great composure on the ball and a great passing range. Remember that name as he is definitely one for the future.
What kind of tactics do the Belgians usually play and will there be any surprises in France?
Belgium are likely to play a 4-2-3-1 formation with a good defensive base allowing the flair players of Hazard and De Bruyne to express themselves further up the pitch.
Don’t expect Belgium to play with too much width. Their back four that normally start are all recognised centre backs, with Alderweirld and Vertonghen playing in the full back positions. The one player who may get into the starting eleven who does provide genuine width is Ferreira Carrasco of Atlético Madrid so it will be interesting to see how often he plays in France.
How to you rate this current team? The country has had some wonderful players over the years like Enzo Scifo, Eric Gerets, Paul Van Himst, etc. but is it the best Belgium have produced?
Belgium have a very strong team and on paper are a match for most teams not just in Europe but in the world, but the issue is that they often seem to play like individuals – not as a team. I saw them play live against Wales in Cardiff, and even though Wales played very well, Belgium were poor and seemed to lack real desire and interest in the game, which when you consider the importance of the tie for qualification, seemed very strange.
Personally, I don’t think the team is up there in terms of the best they have ever produced. The team of the early to mid 80’s had a real spirit and desire and some very good players, such as the players you have mentioned plus Ludo Coeck, Franky Vercauteren, Jean-Marie Pfaff and Jan Ceulemans – all quality players that deserve a mention.
What is domestic football like nowadays – Belgian teams always seem to qualify for Europe but never have enough quality to make a real impact?
Think it is fair to say the standard of the league is lower than the other major European countries. The issue that they have is that young players of real quality come through the youth teams but are quickly sold off to bigger clubs around Europe as was the case with Lukaku, Courtois, etc.
As well as selling established youth off to bigger clubs, the poaching of talented youth is also a contributing factor in Belgium clubs teams lacking real quality. Manchester United famously recruited Adnan Januzaj and Andreas Pereira (via PSV) during their teens whereas city rivals Manchester City did similarly with Dedryck Boyata and more recently Jason Denayer who is now a full international.
Perhaps, if that part of domestic football changed, then Belgian clubs would be able to be more competitive on a continental stage in the future. That said, it doesn’t seem likely at the moment given the money in the game at the very highest level – it is natural for players to leave for the best leagues.