Ask any Belgian football fan to name the first thing that crosses their mind at the mention of the word “Argentina” and they’re likely to break into a smile, and all because of the FIFA World Cup™.
It was at the Opening Match of Spain 1982 that Belgium achieved one of the greatest results in their history in beating Diego Maradona’s Albiceleste 1-0. Four years later, the nation made an even more indelible mark on the competition by reaching the semi-finals, where they came across El Pibe de Oro once more.
This time a truly inspired Maradona consigned Les Diables Rouges to a 2-0 defeat, though the Belgians still look back on that run with as much wistful satisfaction as they do when they reflect on their surprise win of four years earlier.
While only a handful of the current Red Devils’ squad had been born when the second of those feats took place, they will have the honour of resuming Belgium’s World Cup rivalry with the two-time World Cup winners in the first of Saturday’s two quarter-finals at Brazil 2014.
Lining up for the men in red will be midfielder Eden Hazard, who is relishing the opportunity to join the heroes of yesteryear in becoming part of his country’s footballing folklore.
“Everyone always talks about the generation of 86,” he told FIFA. “We would dearly love to make our own history by outdoing what they did.”
Jean-Marie Pfaff would like nothing more than to see that. Like his colleagues in the team that broke new ground in Mexico 28 years ago, the former goalkeeper believes they showed Hazard and Co the way.
“Our generation proved that it was possible to reach the latter stages of the competition. It’s up to this one now to follow us,” he told FIFA.com recently. “Our situation is a bit like Denmark’s when they became European champions in 1992. Today’s Diables have got more individual talent though, and more experience at the highest level.”
After being made to sweat in advancing from their group at Mexico 1986, Pfaff and his cohorts produced their best football in the Round of 16 against a USSR side regarded as one of the favourites.
Current coach and former international Marc Wilmots was 17 at the time and remembers it all as if it were yesterday. Watching on TV back home in Belgium, he was able to sense just how much the World Cup can inspire players to push themselves and achieve new goals.
“We’d never played so badly than in our first three matches,” said Wilmots in a recent interview with FIFA. “It was a disaster, but somehow we managed to get through. We then saw a totally different side in the next two games as this wave of euphoria built up before the Argentina game.”
History has almost been repeating itself for Belgium at Brazil 2014, with Wilmots’ charges finding life harder than expected in Group H and having to dig deep to advance to the last 16, where they finally produced their trademark flowing football against a resilient USA side.
“It gave me a lot of pleasure to see my players push forward and create so many chances, even if it didn’t do my heart much good,” said a relieved Wilmots minutes after Belgium had finally seen off the stubborn Americans in extra-time.
There is every prospect that the coach’s heart will be beating even faster whenever Lionel Messi takes possession of the adidas Brazuca in Brasilia, a sight that will no doubt stir his memories of Maradona in his pomp 28 years earlier.
That said, Wilmots is more concerned about Argentina’s collective strength than the individual gifts of La Pulga: “Argentina have their values and traditions, and their players never give up. What they achieved in 1986 was mostly down to Maradona, but with Angel Di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Ezequiel Lavezzi around, they’ve now got five players who can all make the difference.”
Wilmots is aware that tests such as the one his side will face on Saturday are crucial to its development. He is delighted, nonetheless, to be facing the challenge and has his battle plans drawn.
“I’ve got everything clear in my mind,” said Willy in the press conference that followed his side’s thrilling defeat of the USA. “We won’t be standing there admiring Messi, and I know how we need to play them. I’m wondering, though, what they’re going to do to stop us. It’ll be interesting to see.”
In Mexico all those years ago, Les Diables Rouges were delighted just to earn the chance to stand and contemplate the Albiceleste giant facing them, a giant that wasted little time in swatting them aside.
While they are equally as happy to have made it this far, the new generation have absolutely no intention of being overawed by the Argentinians. Wilmots and his warriors have come for the ultimate prize and are ready to take down anyone who stands in their way.