They are called the 'Red Devils' and are often associated with a hard, competitive style of play. But at this year's football festival in Korea/Japan, the Belgium team had a more angelic face. So much so, in fact, they carried home the FIFA Fair Play Trophy award.
When Belgium arrived in Japan to begin their FIFA World Cup campaign, it was claimed that the team was not one of the footballing artists. Quite the opposite in fact, as the team?s virtues of commitment were much vaunted, with no player personifying these qualities more than the team captain, Marc Wilmots. But the men under coach Robert Waseige's guidance certainly proved that commitment must not always be a synonym for foul play and brutality. In their four matches during the tournament, the Belgians collected only seven yellow cards, without once seeing red.
This is all the more remarkable when one considers the less than ideal situation in which the Red Devils' found themselves. Their group, consisting of Japan, Russia and Tunisia, was undoubtedly one of the most evenly balanced, as it was nigh on impossible to predict which teams would advance. Consequently, the team had to give its all in each and every match. However, a number of experts back home in the Low Countries had claimed that failure to qualify for the second stage was not an option because the Belgians' group was so weak! Talk about piling on the pressure!
And to make things worse, their first match saw the team come face-to-face with a Japanese team roared on by a passionate home crowd. Having to take on the hosts in their opening match of the world's greatest football tournament was simply akin to 90 minutes of pure tension. The match was a full-blooded affair, but the only unexpected piece of action came from Wilmots, who sent the ball flying into the top corner with a splendid overhead kick.
The Belgians behaved perfectly in the first round, and nothing changed in the round of 16. Waseige's team had no complexes when facing up to the giants from Brazil, with the bull-like Wilmots scoring what appeared to be the first goal. However, his strike was ruled out for a push. Unperturbed, the Belgians did not react and chose to respect the referee?s decision. As they should, perhaps, but it is an act that is becoming all the more rare in modern football and the Belgians were eventually eliminated, but with their heads held high.
This trophy will perhaps allow Belgium to lay their reputation for hard play to rest. But those who make such claims conveniently forget that a team that qualifies for six consecutive FIFA World Cup finals, a record in itself, does not do so by tackling anything that moves and by pulling shirts. Such claims do not do justice to the teams of 1982 and 1986 in particular, when the 'Red Devils' devised an attractive pass and move game plan that helped to carry them as far as the semi-finals in Mexico. Nor do such claims pay tribute to the Belgian stars that have shone over the years. Players such as Frank Vercauteren, Vincenzo Scifo, Eric Gerets, and more recently Johan Wallem are the envy of many.
One look at the many statistics from the competition explains why FIFA is awarding this trophy to the Belgian team. Perhaps they should be referred to as the 'Red Angels'.