After Erik Gerets, Daniel van Buyten is only the second Belgian ever to win the UEFA Champions League. Other than that, the 36-year-old also has three German league titles, three DFB Cup wins, one UEFA Super Cup and the 2013 FIFA Club World Cup to his name, making him one of the most successful Belgian players of all time.
The 1.97m defender is also a regular in the Belgium national squad. Having won over 70 caps for his country, Van Buyten is one of the more experienced players in a team that, with the likes of Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard in their ranks, are being tipped as one of the dark horses for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
Speaking with FIFA.com, Van Buyten revealed he is already looking forward to the tournament – only his second World Cup finals appearance since the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan – and also shared his thoughts on Belgium’s recent revival, his chances of playing at the World Cup, and the mood in Belgium ahead of the finals in Brazil.
FIFA.com: When you play for current FIFA Club World Cup champions Bayern Munich, you go into every match as favourites. Belgium, on the other hand, still start many games as underdogs. How do you deal with the difference in expectations?
Daniel van Buyten: It’s not as difficult as it was a couple of years ago. I was part of an exceptional team at Bayern, but the national team wasn’t doing so well – our squad wasn’t as strong as it is now. Now, we’ve got a good generation of players, many of whom ply their trade abroad and are playing regularly in international competitions. That’s made us a lot stronger. Now it’s a lot more fun to join up with the national team.
What’s the reason behind the national team’s recent revival?
Changes have been made across the board. There’s a little bit more professionalism, as well as a new coaching staff and physio team. We’ve suddenly got a good generation of players and the other, older members of the squad have also upped their game. It’s often the case that when a team improves, so does your individual game. The biggest factor is that all the young players are suddenly playing abroad. They all used to play in Belgium. They were still good players, but only as good as the Belgian league.
Several of your national team colleagues currently play in the Bundesliga. What did you make of Kevin de Bruyne’s move to VfL Wolfsburg?
It’s a very, very good move for him. Chelsea are a great team, but being at a club where you don’t get to play is very bad for a player of his age. I’ve spoken with him a lot. I’m 36 and reaching the end of my career – I’m not going to be playing week in, week out. I train with outstanding players every day and I’m at the best club in the world, but he’s 22 and needs game time. He still has to develop. Training at Chelsea without playing isn’t enough. He told me that he’d received some good offers from Germany and I told him: “You’re familiar with the league and the language – you know you’ll enjoy it.”
Belgium currently have a very strong squad. How do you rate your chances at the World Cup?
Everyone’s saying we could turn out to be the tournament’s surprise package. We’re all highly motivated and would love to cause an upset, but we haven’t been involved for 12 years. We can’t just assume we’ll automatically reach the latter stages. We have to give our all, but to say we’ll reach the semi-finals would be too ambitious.
When I’m back home and I meet someone when I’m out shopping, they always say: “Really go for it in Brazil!” It’s all they talk about.
What do you make of the draw for the group stage? You’re set to face Russia, Algeria and Korea Republic…
It’s a winnable group. I wouldn’t say it’s particularly difficult or easy, but we’ve got a good chance. We have to prepare for every game like a final, otherwise things can go wrong very quickly.
You could face Germany as early as the last 16. Have you spoken with your club colleagues about the prospect of a potential meeting between the two nations?
We’ve spoken a bit about it. It’s nice to see that they respect us. A while ago, they would have been very relaxed and confident they would beat us. Now they’re saying they would prefer to avoid Belgium in the last 16. It’s great that such a big football nation knows a match against Belgium isn’t going to be easy.
You’re a first-team regular at Bayern. How do you rate your personal chances of playing at the World Cup?
I hope I’ll get to play, of course. I know we have a lot of quality. There are players in my position who play just as regularly for their clubs as I do, but are much younger than me. The coach knows full well how professional I am. Even if I don’t play every game, I’ll be given playing time. I want to play as much as possible, regardless of my age. I’m not going to Brazil to be a spectator, but to play in the tournament.
What’s the mood like in Belgium ahead of the World Cup in Brazil?
The excitement is palpable. If I think back to a couple of years ago, the country lacked a heart and soul. There was hardly any atmosphere in the stadiums – or anywhere else in the country, for that matter – when we were playing. Now we’ve awoken the entire nation through our football. We’re a small country, but we’ve got a lot of potential. Everyone’s really excited and the fans can relate to us, which wasn’t the case for a very long time.
Would you say there’s an added pressure to succeed?
Of course! We’re never satisfied, and if you’re taking part in the tournament, you automatically want more. The whole of Belgium is thinking about the World Cup. When I’m back home and I meet someone when I’m out shopping, they always say: “Really go for it in Brazil!” It’s all they talk about. Even the family are making preparations; they want to have a barbecue during every game. Everybody’s really excited. I can’t have a conversation in Belgium without talking about Brazil at least once. They always say: “We’ve prepared everything, we’ve bought everyone a shirt. You have to prepare just as well.” It’s unbelievable, but very nice to see.
What are your recollections of the 2002 tournament in Korea/Japan?
We were devastated to be knocked out in the last 16 by Brazil. Apart from that, it was a great tournament and we had some great results. If you’re in a hotel with the rest of the team for a whole month, you become a family. It was a great feeling. I was a young player at the time and learned a lot, so it’s a very important experience for our young squad. They could learn a lot for the future.
Will those experiences help you in Brazil?
Of course they will. I’ve spoken a lot about that with the lads. We’re going to spend a lot of time with each other, so we can’t afford to let problems fester. They have to be discussed straight away. It’s important that we keep the morale of the squad high and if someone does have a problem, he has to address it immediately. It’s vital that everyone remains completely focused on their football. If you’re worrying about something, it’s impossible to play to your full potential.