Belgium is the United States’ next soccer foil. And that should be terrifying. Yet the upstart USMNT and its beautiful bandwagon hadn’t been in the World Cup’s Sweet 16 for more than 10 minutes Thursday before quips about waffles hit Twitter. Americans aren’t blinking.
Alright we get it. They have waffles in Belgium and the US is playing the Belgian soccer team.
— Swaggy D (@drewthegoose) June 26, 2014
Indeed the new enemy is a relatively unknown No. 1 seed lacking the athletic cache of what Americans just survived in group play. Belgium doesn’t have the expectations of Germany or an individual as accomplished as Cristiano Ronaldo; it isn’t an emotional, long-lingering hurdle like Ghana. The Red Devils are, however, the most talented team Americans will face at the World Cup.
It’s been a sharp, sudden rise 10 years in the making—you’re forgiven for not noticing that some of the English Premier League’s most mesmerizing individuals hail from a country you took a train through while studying abroad. Ten years ago, Belgian Football Association technical director Michel Sablon overhauled the country’s youth system and debuted a brand of soccer dubbed Global-Analytique-Global—the idea was to fuse the nation’s primary influences and arrive at a new style built on French efficiency and Dutch finesse.
In 2008, Belgium made the semifinals at the Beijing Olympics—finishing behind Lionel Messi’s Argentina and Thiago Silva’s Brazil. Its players began breaking out in the EPL. In 2012, Belgium hired retired national team forward and former Belgian senator Marc Wilmots as its head coach just as World Cup qualifying began. The team qualified with an undefeated record and shot up 59 places in the FIFA world rankings to a record high of No. 5.
This video is a nice roll call. It gets mighty patriotic around the 2:15 mark.
The specifics of how this random midlevel cog became all-world are outlined in Sam Knight’s beautifully written Grantland feature, The Rise of the Red Devils. Long story short, these factors colluded:
1) The aforementioned tactical innovation, now implemented across youth leagues in Belgium.
2) Economic necessity. Belgium’s domestic league is in a perpetual pinch—having to develop talent just so it can then sell it to more lucrative European leagues and keep the lights on.
3) Waves of immigration within Belgium’s unique, awkwardly stitched together history and how “The New Belgians” have forged a united path forward. From Knight’s piece:
There is the Flemish north, the French-speaking south, and the shared capital of Brussels, which has its own parliament . . . Crowds watching the national team chanted in English to circumvent the language problem . . . The demographic shift was a shock, particularly in Belgium’s urban centers, many of which had aging, shrinking populations. Unlike in, for example, Paris, the poorer districts of many Belgian cities are centrally located, so the newcomers — young Africans, Turks, and Moroccans, looking for work and bearing children — were particularly visible . . . So [Belgian anthropologist Johan Leman] started persuading crowded municipalities to build the sturdy, concrete soccer cages that now exist all over Belgium . . . The new Belgians don’t really get the Flemish-French angst situation. They quite like Belgium as it is
Belgium’s national team is still young, but when it puts together a complete game—like the Red Devils did in Cleveland last spring against the USMNT—its quality along the back line, coupled with the spider-like picking in the midfield, and the lethal wingers slicing angles inside the box then chipping softballs at an unforgiving strikeforce, can suffocate. Ian Darke called the 4-2 loss a “sharpening up exercise of some significance.”
There’s a sort of loose, freestyle element to its game—Belgium can crowd a useless corner of the field and play keep away, then lunge deep crosses to forwards that are one-on-one (2:25 and 5:24-minute marks).
In Brazil, Belgium more or less sleepwalked through Group H—playing first gear warm up ball in boring games. Russia and Algeria played a defensive-minded 4-2-3-1 formation and held out for a draw, it took Belgium until after the 70th minute but it eventually scored to beat both. Facing elimination, South Korea went for the attack, caught a break when Steven Defour was red-carded, it didn’t matter: Jan Vertonghen still scored late to make Belgium one of just four countries in the final 16 to win all three group stage games.
Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois is a 22-year-old phenom and Chelsea’s anchor of the future. The guy is like a swan.
Captain Vincent Kompany also captained Manchester City to a second EPL title in three years in May. He’s one of the tournament’s most complete players and a crutch defender. However, a nagging groin injury may keep him out of action against the USMNT.
Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini will be the “tall dude with the afro” Tuesday. He’s lethal on set pieces, a monster in the midfield.
Axel Witsel is another mid that can score off sets, but also from deep, with touch and magic.
Napoli winger Dries Mertens can likewise stop and pop from anywhere.
Everton forward Kevin Mirallas is close buddies with EPL teammate Tim Howard and can do stuff like this.
Eden Hazard is the relentless roamer that draws defenders like bees to honey and then kills with backheel volley passes to open teammates. He’s a world-beating terror for Chelsea and plays a sort of Chris Paul, distributor role. I don’t know that we have an answer for Hazard.
The individual skill in play makes the United States a significant underdog, especially given Michael Bradley’s exhausted play thus far in the World Cup. However, Belgium is still a kind of a glass-eyed question mark. How much do these globetrotters even care about winning the World Cup? How organized would they be without Kompany? In his absence, Vertonghen donned the captain’s armband against South Korea and, despite his goal, he was an erratic and lazy defender. He’s just as liable to villainously dive in the box and pull a penalty kick out of thin air as he is to make a careless clearance, a short-tempered tackle, or to get in Fernando Torres’ head enough to get scratched in the face.
The United States faces a touring And 1 Mixtape company, but history rewards systematic teamwork over individual brilliance.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons