World Cup 2014: Belgium – Algeria Preview
It has felt like an interminable wait to see Belgium take the field in a World Cup game and that’s just during this round of group games! Today finally sees de Rode Duivels return to tournament football after twelve years away. In the intervening period, much has changed in (Belgian) football but some things stay the same. Marc Wilmots is still an integral figure and the World Cup, while showcasing a great deal of attacking play thus far, has been punctuated by a number of controversial refereeing decisions.
Against that backdrop it’s rather appropriate that Belgium do return to football’s greatest stage in the land of their last tournament opponents Brazil. Twelve years ago to the day, les Diables Rouges were knocked out of the World Cup in South Korea and Japan in the most unsatisfying of circumstances against the eventual winners. Although the final score was 2-0 to A Seleção, it’s fair to say that the underdogs that day were robbed blind. None other than Wilmots himself takes up the story:
“You have to relive the moment. The cross comes in. I drop in behind the defender to create a gap and keep my eyes on Roque Junior. He’s tracking me but then he loses sight of me because he has to watch both me and the ball. When he looks at the ball, I make a run away from him to the left to create space between us. When the cross comes in, I will be jumping forwards and he will be jumping backwards. I always have the advantage. It’s very technical. You have to play and think. When the cross comes in, I move forward. I barely touched him. It was a fair contest. I head the ball and immediately I hear the whistle. Right away, I looked towards the linesman because we were level. Maybe he had flagged.
“It all happened so fast. Look what the Brazilian goalkeeper (Marcos) does. He quickly picks up the ball and restarts play so that we don’t have the time to react. And then when I go over and over the incident in my head, it drives me crazy. I realise that I couldn’t score. At that moment I said to myself: ‘It’s over. We’re not allowed to go through,’ ” he told the documentary series Belga Sport.
The referee that day was the Jamaican Peter Prendergast, the very mention of whose name still evokes feelings of disgust and much worse among Belgium supporters. Prendergast himself says he would disallow the goal again even today but then he does so in the knowledge he’ll never have to buy a drink again as long as there’s a Brazilian about. In a World Cup that saw many of the big hitters fall by the wayside, Brazil weren’t going to be another as Rivaldo and Ronaldo secured victory.
Wilmots remains bitter about the whole affair. He had dragged Belgium through the group stages, scoring in all three games and epitomised his leadership qualities – das Kampfschwein himself. Now his country are once again indebted to him for succeeding where Aimé Antheunis, René Vandereycken and Georges Leekens (in his second spell) failed. Like that dreadful day in 2002, for many there was a sense of inevitability about qualification this time. ‘The players were so good, they couldn’t fail again’ so went the line of argument. Although the appointment of Wilmots was met with a more lukewarm reception by this writer than others, I cannot go along with that.
Such reasoning underplays the state of flux the team were in, in terms of the lack of harmony in the squad, a lack of managerial stability, an inability to get the most out of young but nevertheless very talented individuals and finally the absence of professionalism at association level, which helped to play a role in the indifferent attitude of many fans towards a side who should be a force for escapism at least and at most, unity. Wilmots cannot point to the list of managerial achievements that Dick Advocaat could or even Eric Gerets or Michel Preud’homme but like the latter two, he has proven he would run through fire for his country and as a national great, is more attune to the mentality of this group than his direct predecessor Leekens, who arguably hadn’t moved with the times 15 years ago never mind in this decade.
Wilmots has placed faith in those who secured World Cup qualification. He continues to go into bat for Eden Hazard, who will start and is expected to peak for the games that really count. Wilmots deflected the journalists’ questions with as much skill as the player himself displays on the pitch, stating that Hazard can only prosper as part of a cohesive unit. That said, his supporters are banking on his individual ability to influence the outcome of a game in one, decisive moment, illuminating an otherwise tight contest.
The atmosphere in the camp appears to be a picture of calmness from the outside. The town of Mogi das Cruzes has embraced the team, the facilities are excellent and training continues to be of a high standard, sometimes to the point of being too intensive one could argue. Kevin De Bruyne picked up a knock but is expected to play and his role is pivotal – not only is he the star player in the team but where he plays will ultimately determine the team’s composition. Wilmots has a plethora of possibilities and Marouane Fellaini may get the nod due to his strength but my preference remains for Mousa Dembélé if De Bruyne is to operate centrally. Dries Mertens’ impact off the bench should again ensure that Kevin Mirallas gets the final spot in the team.
One injustice which will be righted this evening is that Vincent Kompany is yet to grace a major tournament. The Manchester City man has long been world class and since his move to Eastlands, it is impossible to find a footballer who carries himself better. He will be beaming with pride as he leads his team out in Belo Horizonte and will line up alongside the only squad member with prior tournament experience in Daniel van Buyten. Wilmots and Kompany are in perfect sync. Wilmots’ German influence is abundantly clear in his quest for perfection and demand for high standards within the squad. Kompany’s words yesterday could have been spoken by his manager when he said, “I dreamt of the World Cup as a child not just of participating but playing an important role in it.”
Belgium’s iconic Eddy Merckx turns 69 today. Let’s hope he’s just one of eleven million Belgians celebrating this evening.
Belgium: Courtois – Alderweireld, van Buyten, Kompany, Vertonghen – Witsel, Dembélé, De Bruyne – Chadli, Lukaku, Hazard