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Belgium is FIFA’s top-ranked team, but will they win?

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Romelu Lukaku remembers the dark ages of Belgian soccer well. He remembers going to national team games in the cavernous Koning Boudewijn Stadion in Brussels with barely a quarter of its 50,000 seats filled. And he remembers going only because as a youth national team member he got free tickets, not because he particularly cared about the Rode Duivels.

Apathy about the Belgian national team was the norm then. I know this because I grew up there, too. From Lukaku’s birth in 1993 until his senior national team debut as a 16-year-old in 2010, Belgium only appeared at one European Championship, in 2000 when it qualified automatically as a co-host. The only World Cup he can remember his country playing in was 2002. “I didn’t even watch Belgium games back then,” the Inter Milan striker tells Yahoo Sports. “I didn’t care about the national team one bit. When you compare that to us now, that’s different. We’ve come very far.”

Belgium has. After failing to qualify for the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, and missing six out of seven Euros from 1984 through 2016, the little country wedged between the Netherlands, France and Germany has spent more than two years without interruption at the top of FIFA world rankings. It also spent much of 2019 and 2020 atop the more scientific Elo Ratings. In 2018, Belgium placed a best-ever third at the World Cup, losing a close semifinal to soon-to-be-champions France in spite of controlling the game.

“I’ve seen a team mentality that is evolving,” Lukaku says. “The players really expect to win games. It’s not good enough to just turn up and be part of a major tournament. It’s a completely different way of looking at the national team.”

In that shift lay Belgium’s next challenge. It has gone from futility to a global power. It was a nation stuck reminiscing about a Jan Ceulemans-led golden generation that finished second at Euro 1980 and fourth at the 1986 World Cup. Now, Belgium is renewed, with a team that stands on the precipice of overshadowing the ghosts of the past. But it still hasn’t won anything. And winning things begins with thinking and expecting to win them.

(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports)
(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports)

“We work a lot on facing that responsibility head on,” says manager Roberto Martinez, who took over after a disappointing quarterfinal elimination to an upstart Wales at Euro 2016. “The psychological battle that we had was let’s enjoy the expectations, let’s enjoy the millions of fans that want to see a winning team.

“When you are part of the No. 1 team in the world, you could be fearful of losing that spot or you can just really enjoy going into a game and being the favorite, knowing that everyone is going to change the way they play and make it difficult to be beat. And the players took that responsibility.”

Embracing its status as juggernaut was a task that fell to the entire federation, which professionalized, diversified and modernized after decades of stasis and insularity. “We don’t hide,” says Peter Bossaert, CEO of the Royal Belgian Football Association, or KBVB. “We know that we’re no longer an outsider. We want to enter every tournament with the ambition of winning it. The bronze medal at the World Cup in 2018 reinforced our conviction.”

How Belgium’s talent changed its ambition

The dark ages weren’t all that long ago.

The advent of soccer’s free agency in 1995, and the free movement of players within Europe that came along with it, ravaged the once-respectable Belgian league. This is ironic. Jean-Marc Bosman, an unremarkable Belgian midfielder who took his fight all the way to the European Court of Justice, where his ruling would unloose unfettered capitalism on soccer, initially brought his case against the Belgian federation.

By 2000, Belgium’s professional clubs got together and agreed that the way to arrest their death spiral was to double down on youth development. With the federation’s support, they created a national playing style and a set of best practices for developing more technical players. Resources were reallocated and in remarkably short order, Belgium, with a population smaller than Ohio’s, became a talent factory.

When that talent reached the senior national team, it was met with a mindset that did not match the ambition, a mindset that still reflected the time, in 2007, when Belgium had tumbled to 71st in the FIFA rankings, its lowest spot ever. “At the start, when I joined the team, it was about reaching a major tournament,” Lukaku says. “Our goal was to qualify for Euro 2012.” They didn’t.

“Even if we played Kazakhstan – with all due respect – or Azerbaijan, it was always like, we need to be careful,” Lukaku continues. “We were always a little scared. We used to be too modest, which cost us a lot of games, where we walked onto the field with a scared mentality.”

When all of those rising stars joined major clubs, they began to view their national team’s stature in a new light as well. Once Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne were off to Chelsea, Thibaut Courtois played for Atletico Madrid, Marouane Fellaini had joined Everton, and others were working their way up the pyramid as well, the national team’s reverence for pedestrian opponents felt off.

“Then it became a matter of transferring the level that we had reached with our clubs to the national team,” Lukaku says. “Once that happened, we shot up like a comet.”

Belgium midfielder Youri Tielemans (8) sees the loss in the 2018 World Cup semifiinals not as an end, but as a beginning. (Photo by Vincent Van Doornick/Isosport/MB Media/Getty Images)

Belgium midfielder Youri Tielemans (8) sees the loss in the 2018 World Cup semifiinals not as an end, but as a beginning. (Photo by Vincent Van Doornick/Isosport/MB Media/Getty Images)

“Now, we know we need to win every game,” Lukaku continues. “Now, we want to reach a final. We step on the field with confidence, knowing we are Belgium and we’re becoming a big football nation and that’s how we need to behave. We step on the field and we think, we’re going to win this game and crush the other team and that’s it. That’s our mentality.”

Youri Tielemans, a midfielder who plays for Leicester City, sees the lost World Cup semifinal not as a high-water mark but as the beginning of something. “In the locker room after that semifinal that we lost to France, we got even more of a winner’s mentality,” he says. “It made us want to win even more and even better than we did before. That’s a big difference that I see within the team. Our baseline is higher. Qualifying used to be an achievement and enough, that was a victory in and of itself. Now, at a minimum, it’s qualifying and then making a deep run and reach the medal stand.”

Belgium struggles with its national identity. Its soccer players don’t

On its face, Martinez has a cushy job. He has a talent pool as deep as an ocean but with little history to live up to.

There are two central complications. The first is a luxury problem but a problem all the same: how to get all of those stars on the field and working together. Martinez calls this issue “a matter of finding clarity.”

The second complication is much less straightforward.

Belgium’s players are from the same country but not necessarily from the same place. Because Belgium is an odd nation of 11.5 million stitched together from parts that were left over when other countries were made. There’s Wallonia, a spare bit of France that speaks French. There’s a scrap of the Netherlands, called Flanders, where they speak Dutch. And then there’s the hunk that used to be Germany but changed hands as reparations for World War I.

Between the influx and influence of migrants from its former Congolese colony and a large population that resettled from Northern Africa and Turkey, Belgium is a spectacular mosaic of a country that has forever grappled with what it really is. Friction is a constant. In the main, the Flemish, who drive the economy, long resented the Walloons, who historically made up the aristocracy and looked down on the Dutch-speaking working class. They are split by their language, which they each defend fiercely. And both have an uneasy relationship with the new Belgians who arrived in the last few generations. A Flemish secessionist movement and a robust far-right element throw fuel on the fire. At its worst, Belgium is a nation of factions that share little but a flag, an anthem and the country’s borders. At its best, Belgium is its national soccer team, diverse and harmonious and successful.

There used to be an unspoken pressure on Belgium’s managers – mostly Flemings in the last few decades – to call up a roughly even number of Flemings and Walloons, no matter how the talent broke down. This added a layer of complexity. But it’s one that Martinez doesn’t have as just the second foreign Belgium manager in half a century — the other one, Dick Advocaat, lasted only five games.

“In my case, I’m neutral and I think that’s the biggest advantage I have,” he says. “It would be a very complicated situation for any coach with a background link to any area of Belgium. I’m neutral – my decision is based on football.”

When he took the job, Martinez wondered if he should learn Dutch or French. Instead, with the federation’s support, he made English the team’s working language to avoid taking a side in the linguistic standoff. In the same vein, the Red Devils fans have been known to chant for their team in English – “Belgium!” rather than the partisan “Belgïe!” or “Belgique!”

Spanish manager Roberto Martinez has united Belgium's national team in more ways than one. ( Photo by Vincent Kalut / Photonews via Getty Images)

Spanish manager Roberto Martinez has united Belgium’s national team in more ways than one. ( Photo by Vincent Kalut / Photonews via Getty Images)

Martinez, ever the optimist, chooses to see Belgium’s deep fault lines as a source of strength. “As a Belgium player we are very fortunate because as a very young player you become open-minded,” he says. “You have to learn two languages, if not three. The players with a bit of talent left Belgium very early, very young. They had to adapt to living abroad, understanding different cultures, and becoming effective in a dressing room. As a team, it prepares you individually very, very well to become part of another team.”

The language barrier no longer forms factions within the team, according to Bossaert. “It’s not a topic at all,” he says. “They are the perfect mirror of our society.” And when the team now plays, a nation forgets the things that divide it for a while.

Why will this golden generation succeed where others have failed?

Succeeding a golden generation is fraught. After the last one, Belgium spent three decades loafing between irrelevance and incompetence.

That’s why this golden generation hopes to impart its values onto the next one. At 27, Lukaku is the youngest among his cohort. Most are in their 30s or about to be. Fellaini and Vincent Kompany have already retired from the national team or stopped playing altogether. Others are slowly aging out. That’s why they’ve begun schooling the new wave in their ways, not verbally but by setting a ferocious pace and intensity in practice. To see Belgium train is to be awed by the speed, accuracy and intricacy of its drills.

“The young guys joining now need to know this isn’t a joke, we want to win games and tournaments,” Lukaku explains. “We have to keep Belgium at this level, to keep developing. We’ve reached a status where we aren’t allowed to have any bad games anymore. We don’t want to go back to the level we used to be at. We have to keep the same hunger.”

Tielemans, who played in four games at the last World Cup and is still only 23, understands this. He gets that there is more to be achieved. “The rankings are nice,” he says. “It’s prestige. But it’s not a trophy. We want to win a trophy.”

He is among a wave of successors who grew up watching a national team that mattered. And the senior squad’s growing stature trickled down to the youth national teams he represented, raising the bar for everyone. “The fact that the senior team was qualifying for major tournaments brought more attention to us,” he says. “You’re judged on the jersey you wear. If Belgium reaches major tournaments people expect the youth teams to perform as well.”

It wasn’t just that Belgium’s youth development was reprogrammed for instilling technique. It instilled new standards as well.

‘A trophy would be our coronation’

There’s an old parlor game where you have to name as many famous Belgians as you can. But they can’t be fictional. So Tintin and Hercule Poirot don’t count. Neither do foods. Until fairly recently, it was a hard game. There’s the 16th-century cartographer Mercator. Painters from different schools like Rubens and Magritte. You might remember that actress Aubrey Hepburn was born in Belgium from some game of trivia. But from there, you would be down to fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, some architects and the guy who invented the saxophone. Now, Lukaku, Kompany and Hazard are household names in much of the world.

Its soccer team has made Belgium better-known. Or at least produced more well-known Belgians.

But it doesn’t mean much to Lukaku and his ilk until they finally win something. To their mind, you’re not a golden generation until you’ve won some gold.

“We’ve been first in the FIFA world rankings for two years but we don’t have a trophy,” Lukaku says. “A trophy would be our coronation. I hope that we can confirm what we did in Russia [at the 2018 World Cup] at the Euro [in 2021]. And at the 2022 World Cup, I want our older generation to say goodbye in style. One last good push to prepare the younger generation and to say, ‘This is where we left it. We’ve given you all the tools. Take it over and bring the team to a higher level.’”

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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