- Belgium have reached their best-ever position in the world rankings
- Coach Ives Serneels is one of the key factors in this success
- The Red Flames began their European qualifying campaign with two wins
When the Belgium men’s national team reached the pinnacle of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking in 2015, everybody was talking about the Red Devils and their stratospheric rise to the top of the beautiful game. Four years later, the country’s women are also celebrating their highest-ever world ranking.
There are many reasons for the Red Flames’ recent success. "It’s the result of a couple of years of work by those on the pitch, off the pitch and at the national football association," coach Ives Serneels explained in an interview with FIFA.com. "What I tried to do when I started was to see, step by step, what’s possible and how to build up better quality in and around the team.
"Our first step was to ask more things from our girls on the field," the 47-year-old said. "For me as a coach, it was important to give them good staff – the best people to set a good example for them. We gradually introduce the team to new things and try to confront them with new challenges and set new targets every two or three years.
"We also talk to the team, and ask: Are these targets realistic or not? It’s easy to say that we want to win the European Championship in two years, but is that realistic? At the moment, maybe not. But perhaps there is a step in between and we can do it in six years. Something I have learned is that good management with good ideas is always important. It’s also vital to have the support of the directors at the national football association behind you."
Every country has its own culture. We try to do our best with the possibilities we have in Belgium, but the most important thing now is that we’re heading in the right direction. People talk to me and they know who the Red Flames are.
Belgium’s women took an important step forward by competing at their first UEFA Women’s EURO in 2017. Serneels’ squad also performed well in qualifying for the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019™, finishing second behind Italy in Group 6 before losing to Switzerland in the play-offs.
"Qualifying for EURO 2017 in the Netherlands was the moment we needed to create something special for women’s football in Belgium," the former defender explained. "We had one million people watching it on television. It was incredible to see what qualifying created both on and off the pitch.
"For the match against Norway there were six or seven thousand Belgian supporters. That was something I never could have imagined when I started. Now we are going to do everything to qualify for the second time. We currently have six points after two games and are confident that we can do it again," said Serneels, who took over as national team coach back in March 2011.
"Every country has its own culture," he continued. "We try to do our best with the possibilities we have in Belgium, but the most important thing now is that we’re heading in the right direction. People talk to me and they know who the Red Flames are. They know there is women’s football in Belgium. When I started, maybe one or two out of every ten people knew something about the women’s game. It’s also important to have good results and that the girls feel that people are behind them. That gives us the motivation to work for the future."
Yet the Red Flames are not the only ones to have changed and developed – their coach has too. "For me personally, the first thing that has changed is that it’s not a one-man show and it isn’t just me as a coach," Serneels said. "Sometimes I have to be more like a manager and give responsibilities to my coaching staff. For me, they are the best people with the best qualities, and it’s the same with my team.
"At the beginning I just talked about the game for 30 or 35 minutes. Now it’s a discussion. I have five or six clips and we talk about them in small groups," he explained, illustrating how his style of coaching and managing the team has evolved over time.
"It’s a different kind of work and a complete change for me," he continued. "The people around me are good professionals and we learn from each other. It’s a bit of a new way of working with our first team, but it’s also something I want to introduce in our youth teams.
"Perhaps the best example is that we talk to our teams about principles rather than systems. If the players know the principles, they have more chances to grow and be better players in the future. That’s a big difference in coaching for me now. During the game I’m a bit too emotional sometimes [laughs], but that’s my character. I always try to be focused and positive. I also have the feeling that the players like this way of working. It gives them a sense of responsibility, and that gives them self-confidence and mental strength."