Having recently booked their place at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ in breathtaking fashion, Belgium are now eagerly looking forward to the Final Draw on 6 December in Salvador de Bahia.
Inevitably, memories of the 1986 World Cup will be stirred, when the Red Devils advanced to the semi-finals before a Diego Maradona brace for eventual champions Argentina put a halt to their progress.
One of the stars of that Belgium side was goalkeeper Jean Marie Pfaff, who thwarted attackers almost at every turn in Mexico. “We had a terrific World Cup,” the 59-year-old told FIFA.com. “The group stage wasn’t so good but we gradually got better. The matches against Russia [4-3 after extra time] and against Spain [5-4 in a penalty shootout] were the best games I ever played in. In the semi-final we didn’t lose to Argentina, we lost to Maradona.”
One of a kind
Now, 28 years later, the current crop of players also have their sights set on glory and expectations have soared after the team missed out on the 2006 and 2010 tournament editions. “We have so many young players and there’s so much talent in Belgium being snapped up by big European clubs,” Pfaff continued. “That’s given the players a lot of experience. It’s a bit like Denmark, who won the European Championship in 1992. We’ve got good players in every position and on top of that the teamwork is good, as is Marc Wilmots. He belongs to a new generation of coaches and he’s given them the impetus.”
Pfaff’s own CV is equally admirable. He amassed 64 caps between the posts for Belgium and has been named among the best 125 living footballers since 2004. “I used to be the best goalkeeper in the world and I always wanted to be number one,” Pfaff said. “I was very ambitious and I learned that you have to work hard to get to the top and to stay there. Talent alone is not enough. You need to pay close attention to your coach. I had the right attitude to succeed.”
The pinnacle of Pfaff’s career arrived in 1987 when he was crowned the world’s finest shot-stopper. The Belgian believes that comparisons to him are hard to make because “there’s only one Jean Marie Pfaff. I have my qualities and did the best I could with them.” One such characteristic is his sense of humour, which he retains to this day: “I was small and a little bit fat. Being a goalkeeper was my only chance.”
Pfaff was a late developer and only established himself at the highest level after joining Bayern Munich, following limited success with his hometown club KSK Beveren. Pfaff won three league championships and two cups with the Bavarians, although he was also on the wrong end of a 2-1 defeat to West Germany in the UEFA EURO 1980 final. “I’m very grateful to Bayern and am proud of my career,” Pfaff said. “I took part in two World Cups, which was something I’d always dreamed of doing.”
That his favourite to win the FIFA Ballon d’Or 2013 also currently plays for Bayern is mere coincidence, as Pfaff is convinced that Franck Ribery’s speed, creativity and versatility make the Frenchman the perfect candidate to take the honour.
With his interview with FIFA.com drawing to a close, Pfaff, who is still regarded as one of the greatest sporting icons of all time in his homeland, parted with a warning to next year's World Cup participants: “Belgium will be an extremely difficult opponent for the other teams in Brazil.”