After six years of relentless frustration, the green shoots of recovery have at last begun piercing through Belgian soil. A return to the golden age of the 1980s and 1990s may still lie some way off, but the country’s national team has reclaimed enough of its old swagger to set supporters dreaming once again.
“My players are this country’s best ambassadors,” said Belgium coach Georges Leekens after March brought a 2-0 success against Austria followed by a 4-1 victory over Azerbaijan. “Thanks to our football, the people in the street can be proud of our nation again. My players aren’t just fantastic on the pitch but also off it, where they set a good example.”
On it, their performances have set just as powerful an example, those triumphs representing the first time in six years that Belgium had won consecutive qualifying matches for the same tournament, while reviving hopes of a place at UEFA EURO 2012.
Having failed to reach a major international tournament since 2002, the Red Devils are nudging their way back into the limelight, driven by a young generation of talent given added steel by Vincent Kompany, Marouane Fellaini, Thomas Vermaelen and Daniel Van Buyten. Their progress has also been reflected in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, with a leap of 25 places catapulting Leekens’ men up to 37th. True, they still lie short of their record high of 16th, reached in January 2003 and from January to April 2004, but the upward trend has transformed the team’s mindset and generated a fresh set of ambitions.
Thanks to our football, the people in the street can be proud of our nation again.
"Marc Wilmots and Leekens have brought discipline and a new attitude to this squad,” explained Fellaini, a stalwart in Belgium’s midfield until his season was ended by a serious ankle injury in March. “Everyone knows we have a good team and now everyone wants to be in it again.” Competition for places has certainly intensified of late, and that was amply demonstrated when Leekens started Lille prodigy Eden Hazard on the bench in their last two jousts, the coach nicknamed Mac the Knife opting for Nacer Chadli instead. But while the talent pool is undoubtedly there, it has taken nearly two years for the obvious potential to bear fruit.
“Six months ago, who would’ve dared think that our national team would still be alive?” said Leekens. “It’s quite simply brilliant. The supporters want a team which shows character on the pitch.” The 61-year-old’s message clearly seems to have been understood and, with both players and fans fulfilling their part of the bargain, Belgian football is currently experiencing a boom time not seen for years. Indeed, no fewer than 34,000 tickets for their crucial qualifier against Turkey on 3 June found buyers within 24 hours of going on sale, meaning the Red Devils can once again look forward to fervent backing from the stands.
"I haven’t experienced an atmosphere like that for ten years – and even then it was only for matches against big teams,” commented veteran defender Timmy Simons after the Azerbaijan win. “The match in Austria was a turning point,” added Van Buyten. “We can still improve a few things, but we’re playing some good football. The fans have seen that and more and more of them are turning up. We’re going to savour this victory and then we’ll be ready to face Turkey.”
“The fact that we still have to play important matches is tiring, but at the same time it’s fantastic,” said Leekens. “We can still get a lot better with this side, but above all we can’t forget that we have to take things step by step. The team is all that counts with the Red Devils.”
Past results suggest his guarded approach has been serving the players well so far, to the extent that a journalist from The Times last year identified Belgium as potential outsiders for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. Such lofty heights may remain a distant dream for now, but the team’s rapid rise up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking suggests they are well and truly heading in the right direction.