In the November FIFA ranking, Belgium moved up to the top position, and while many will scoff at that ranking saying that its too high for a nation that has made just one finals appearance in the last ten years.
Others would point to the Elo Ratings, which are also used rank national teams and has the Diables Rouges currently sitting in eleventh place. I’m of the opinion that this current Belgium side is somewhere between those two spots.
But despite this success, the Belgian Jupiler League isn’t considered a top league. So what are the reasons that has enabled the national team to reach such heights, while the Jupiler League lies as a stepping stone for players to move on to bigger clubs and leagues?
In the country’s history, their are three great of achievements of the Belgian side. In 1972 the side was one of four to reach the European championships, and they finished in third.
The side returned for the 1980 version and won their group, earning a trip to the finals. Unfortunately they were unable to defeat West Germany, losing 2-1 on a late goal from Horst Hrubesch.
Six years later the Belgians found success at the 1986 World Cup. The side started slowly, finishing third in their group, before hitting their stride in the knockout stages. Belgium defeated the Soviet Union 4-3 in extra time
The side then defeated Spain on penalties after a 1-1 draw. In the semi-finals Argentina was too much to overcome, led by a dazzling display from Diego Maradona who had a second half brace.
This match also created an iconic photo of Maradona, being watched by six members of the Belgian side.
That Belgium lost to neighbours France in the third place game 4-2 in extra time, meant very little as it still represented the side’s best result on the world Stage.
At the same time of these international successes, the Belgian League was doing quite well. RSC Anderlecht and Club Brugge each won five league titles from 1972 through 1986. The capital club also extended this success to Europe.
For a three year period from 1976 to 1978 the Purple and Whites won two UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup and were runners-up in between They also added UEFA Super Cup trophies in 1976 and 1978.
Anderlecht continued to be a dangerous foe in the early 1980s, twice reaching the semifinals of the European Cup while also winning the 1983 UEFA Cup.
The side, while dominant had a fair amount of turnover, but the spine of defender Hugo Broos talented midfielder Ludo Coeck and forward Francois Van der Elst were around for much of the success.
Club Brugge also found some success during this era, finishing as Runners-up in the 1978 European Cup to Liverpool. That side featured attacking midfielder Jan Ceulemans, who has also made a record 96 appearances for the national team.
Three other sides who have been dissolved since also ended up reaching the semifinals of a European tournament during the late 1970s and early 1980s: Waterschei Thor and KSK Beveren in the Cup Winners Cups of 1983 and 1979 respectively, while KSV Waregem reached the same stage of the 1986 UEFA Cup.
The current period of the Diables Rouges excellence goes back to 2013 when the national team ran roughshod through their World Cup qualification group, dropping just four points in ten matches and conceding a mere four goals.
We have seen the rise of excellent Belgian players such as Eden Hazard, Vincent Kompany, Romelu Lukaku, Christian Benteke, and Thibault Courtois. This special generation was extremely talent, but didn’t display it for long in the Belgian Jupiler League.
Those five players played a combined 304 appearances in the Jupiler League. By comparison, Jan Ceulemans made a whopping 517 appearances for Belgian sides Lierse and Club Brugge.
In this new era of Belgian strength, there have been some good examples of strong clubs in the Jupiler League, however the depth of these club’s runs in Europe barely compares to the previous golden age.
Within the league, Anderlecht continues to set the standard, winning two of the last three league titles. However, there is also a bit of uncertainty in recent years. As there has been a different runner-up in each of those seasons.
We have also seen some high flying clubs. Zulte-Waregum finished in second back in the 2012-2013 season, their highest ever finish, as Eden Hazard’s younger brother Thorgen, helped pull the strings in midfield.
Last season saw another club reach their peak. KAA Gent won the league under the management of Hein Vanhaezebrouck, the first in their club’s 150 year history. This year the club has done well to hold their own against the bigger sides of the Champions League.
After five group matches, the side sits in second, just one point ahead of Valencia, Heading into their final group match at home against Russian side Zenit St. Petersburg, De Buffalos will reach the knockout stages of European football regardless of the side’s result.
This season in Europe has also been positive for Anderlecht. Through five matches in their Europa League group, the side finds themselves in second place.
They have split their two matches with Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur, winning 2-1 on match day three. Their final group stage match is against unfancied Qarabag from Azerbaijan, however the Azeri side defeated them 1-0 in their earlier match, so three points shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Club Brugge has also shown some quality in Europe recently. Last year’s Europa League campaign was a powerful reminder what Belgian squads can be capable of.
Having won their group without losing the side routed Danish side Aaborg 6-1 in the round of 32 and then easily dispatched Besiktas of Turkey 5-2.
Unfortunately the side didn’t have the offensive ability to defeat the surprise of the tournament, Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk of Ukraine, losing on a solitary goal in the second leg.
This season, the side has decided to focus on domestic form rather than Europe. This decision, while understandable, has seen their form dip, gaining only four points through their five matches so far.
Brugge can still advance to the knockout stages however, if they can defeat Danish side Midtjylland, who sit in second place.
While the Belgian national team has returned to prominence in recent years, it has been a bit hard for Belgian clubs to find success in Europe.
One has to think that if Belgian sides are going to have the kind of success they had in late 1970s and early 1980s, something major would have to happen to allow Belgian sides to regularly keep the talent being produced in Belgium for extended period of time and away from the more lucrative leagues that are all around them.