With qualifying for the 2014 world cup entering its latter stages attention has already turned to those participants expected to make an impact in Brazil. One country inevitably labeled as ‘darkhorses’ is Belgium, whose current crop of talented youngsters have been making waves across Europe’s top leagues.
They have been touted as Belgium’s ‘Golden Generation’. But, as we will see in the summer of 1986 an all-too forgotten group of players made a home for themselves at football’s top table. This is the story of when the ‘Rode Duivels’ set Mexican soil alight.
Peruse a map of mainland Europe and it becomes readily clear as to the disadvantages Belgium suffers from when it comes to international football. Sandwiched between France, Germany and Holland it was always going to be difficult for Belgium to cultivate its own sporting identity. These powerful influences have permeated through its culture, right down to its split ‘official’ languages; and have lead to Belgium and its inhabitants to be unfairly stereotyped as ‘Boring’ or ‘Unremarkable’.
There is, however, more than a hint of the spectacular in just how poor Belgium’s pre-WW2 footballing record was. A solitary, if controversial, highpoint can be found in the form of a Gold medal in the 1920 Olympics football final – the match was abandoned after the Czechoslovakian team walked off in protest after 39 minutes.
Post-war mediocrity became the norm for nearly 30 years until the 1972 European Championships resulted in a third place. A celebrated achievement, but somewhat of a false dawn. It would take nearly ten years for Belgium to truly announce themselves on the world stage.
Failure to qualify for the next two mayor tournaments led the Belgian football federation to make changes. Professionalism had been newly introduced into the domestic game and the federation felt a man who matched their new approach was needed for the national team. The man picked for the task was Guy Thys; the coach who had led Antwerp to successive second place finishes in the Juniper League.
A reserved, chain-smoking pragmatist Thys now had the task of molding a team of fading stars and untested youngsters into a competitive force. Thy’s knew that in order for Belgium to gain a chair at football’s top table something less tangible than skill or stamina would be required. Whereas Drills can improve a teams passing and simply running laps will get your players fit, to get your team to play as a committed and cohesive unit would require a much subtler methodology. By installing himself as a totemic father figure for his players to rally around Belgium’s sum could be greater than its individual parts. One of the stars of the era, Jan Ceulemans, endorsed Thys’ sentiment of Esprit de corps: “If you want things to click, you don’t just need the best players, you need that bond of friendship in the side. He understood that very well”
Thys’ methodology almost immediately paid dividends. In the 1980 European championship, through a blend of organised defending, physicality and swashbuckling counters, Belgium reached the final. Though outplayed by a superior West Germany side it still took a goal just two minutes from time in the Stadio Olympico to separate them.
The successful formula was reproduced two years later in the World Cup in Spain when Belgium made the second round and the front pages with its group game scalp of Argentina; immortalised in the picture of a young Diego Maradona facing down a slalom of Belgian defenders.
The upward trajectory came to a halt at France 84’. Losses to France and Denmark consigned Belgium to a first round exit. The players and coaching staff felt the halt was premature yet were at a loss to explain what exactly had gone wrong. The press, however, roundly concurred that the glory days were indeed over, and perhaps a purge of players and coaches would be needed in order to revitalise the team.
Bereft of confidence the Red Devils stuttered through the 1986 qualifying campaign. A second place finish behind Poland meant that Thy’s would have to steer his side through a play-off in order to qualify. The footballing Gods deigned the only way Belgium would qualify would be by overcoming Holland- the bigger, flasher, more successful neighbors. Whilst the Dutch had missed out on the last two tournaments Belgium were given little chance of beating a team built around the formidable Guillit and Van Basten.
After a tense one-nil win at home Belgium went to Rotterdam. In the freezing night air the Dutch scored twice. The knives of the Brussels press were being readily sharpened for Thy’s and his squad. However with four minutes of regulation time remaining Anderlecht defender Georges Grün cemented his place in Belgian footballing folklore, nipping in-between static opponents to head the ball into the Dutch net. As Gullit lashed the ball in anger the realisation set in for Thy’s and his men; they were going to Mexico.
Thys’ unshakable belief in his side with its mix of experience and youthful exuberance had paid off. Media pundits were less convinced, predicting little impact being made despite a somewhat kind group draw which placed them up against the tournament hosts in the opening fixture, Iraqi pride and a Paraguay side returning after a 28-year absence.
In the opening game, in front of 110,000 fervent fans in the Azteca stadium, Mexico expected. Belgium had read the script and played their part. In truth Belgium never got going, perhaps overawed by the enormity of the occasion and in the end lack luster set piece defending proved their undoing leading to a 2-1 defeat.
After a false start in the opening tie Iraq would provide an opportunity to regain the initiative. Early signs boded well as Scifo finished with aplomb and Claesen doubled their lead. Iraq, no strangers to cajoling and frustrating their opposition, set out after halftime encamped in their own half; perhaps motivated by what gruesome ramifications would await them if they succumbed to a heavy loss. Heat and frustration got the better of the Belgians, conceding a goal and then just about mustering a performance to see out the win. Despite the Victory they left the field with their heads down. Qualification for the seond round was still a possibility, but Belgium’s performances suggested little chance of that occurring if something did not change soon.
Guy Thys is known as the “John Wayne of Belgium football” meaning that, as former national team coach Robert Waseige explains: “He never spoke unless he had something worth saying”. This was one of those times. A rift between players had occurred to the point where some were no longer on speaking terms. To boot some players began openly questioning Thys’ tactics and management. Usually a man of gentle persuasion Thys acted decisively. The chief proponent of discord and one of the senior members of the squad midfielder René Vandereycken was sent home, never to play for his national team again.
In his place Thys entrusted youngsters Scifo and Nico Claesen with more responsibility. Meetings were held, air-clearing talks reinvigorating the team spirit. The reunited Belgian side pulled together and, while only managing a draw against Paraguay, qualified for the knockout stages by virtue of being the best performing third placed side.
The game against the U.S.S.R is rightly remembered as a classic of the modern World Cup era. The soviets were considered favorites, with no less than seven of Dynamo Kyiv’s cup winners cup champions in its starting line up, including striker Ihor Belanov; soon-to-be crowned European footballer of the year. The warning signs were unheeded by Belgium’s defence who allowed Belanov a free shot on the edge of the area to take the lead. Scifo equalized in the second half only for Belanov to capitalize again on a mistake by captain Jan Ceulemans. Ceulemans then made amends by equalizing to send the tie to extra time.
The U.S.S.R were physically and emotionally drained. Belgium felt the momentum shift in their favor and seized it. Gerets and Claesen put their side two ahead before Belanov ensured his hatrick and a nervous finish. With the last kick of the game a Soviet cross-cum-shot eluded all and seemed destined to send the tie to penalties. Pfaff with cat like agility managed to get across and claw the ball over the bar. Belgium were through to the quarter finals.
Belgium’s last eight tie against Spain is often forgotten. For good reason, 110 kilometers west Maradona had set the world alight with the ridiculous and sublime against England. Whilst the world attention was fixed on what was happening in Mexico City de Rode Duivels had shaken off their early tournament troubles and were growing in confidence. Galvanized after beating the Soviets they started with purpose against the Spanish. Ceulemans stooping header gave them the lead after thirty-five minutes. What then followed was a fifty-minute barrage from Spain. Belgium’s luck ran out and the two exhausted teams squared off in a penalty shoot out.
Guy Thys made it his business to circulate the entire team, taking time to talk to each of his players one to one. Some required kind words, others fiery encouragement. Thys knew his players well by now and told each of them what they needed to hear. His fatherly reassurance worked wonders as Belgium kept their cool converting all five, Pfaff once again the hero saving Eloy’s tame spot kick. The odyssey continued, Argentina lay in wait.
Thys had tasked his players before the game: Stop Maradona and we will stop Argentina. An over simplification in truth, but with the form El Diego had shown against England it was understandable. The Belgian players doubled up wherever possible. It worked for fifty minutes. Then in a twelve minute window Maradona struck twice, the second a waltzing run not unlike his second against England, leaving the Belgians baffled.
Argentina went through to the final where the street genius from Buenos Aires fulfilled his destiny. Belgium lost to France in the third place play-off. Nether the less the Rode Duivels returned to Belgium heroes, a ticker tape parade in Brussels only fitting for a team who had united and excelled under Guy Thys’ vision.
The high esteem in which Thy’s was held was evident at his funeral in 2003 where the great and good from domestic and European football attended to pay their respects. And while since then international football has been unkind to Belgium since those balmy Mexico nights the current crop of young Belgians will no doubt draw inspiration from the class of 86’, The Golden generation MK1.