Peter Goldstein is a professor at Juniata College in Pennsylvania in the USA. He has been
World Cup crazy since 1966. He will share his views about the past, present and future of
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Belgium forever, sort of
On this site a couple of months ago, Matthew Monk presented an eloquent
anti-Belgium screed, in which he urged us lesser-confederation types to
campaign for fewer spots for UEFA. But guess what? I don't think UEFA gets
too many spots. In fact, judging by past World Cup performances, they don't
get enough. My very own CONCACAFers are about right at 3 or 3˝ spots,
but Africa and particularly Asia are overrepresented. I'd drop one spot from
Africa and at least one from Asia, and give them both gladly to Europe. In
fact, I've devised a complex formula to determine the perfect number of
berths for each confederation, which takes a weighted series of results from
the previous two World Cups, adds the percentage of…oh, forget it, it's a total
waste of time.
What I really want to talk about is Belgium. I sympathize with Matt's "will no
man rid me of this meddlesome priest" attitude--after all, it can't be a lot of
fun to watch the Red Devils bore their way through the qualifiers every time
around. I checked the stats, and they're not pretty: in 1982, they won their
qualifying group with only 12 goals in 8 matches (France, finishing second,
scored 20); in 1986, in 6 matches, it was GF/GA 7-3 (Poland, who finished
first, scored and allowed 3 more goals each). In 1990, they surprised by
actually leading their qualifying group in scoring, but in 1994, it was back to
form: only 16 in 10 matches (fourth best in the group!). In 1998 and 2002 the
goal totals weren't bad at all--but most of them came against teams named San
But here's the deal: Matt lives in Europe, and I don't. So I don't get to see
Belgium up close very often. In fact, living in the USA, I only see them play
come World Cup time. And I'm about to make a very dark and embarrassing
admission: I'm a Belgium fan. Go ahead: shun me, beat me, send me to an
asylum. But I'm unrepentant.
You see, at the World Cup, Belgium has a dual personality. They're awful--or
they're wizards. I have seen Belgium play some of the direst World Cup
football in my lifetime, but I have also seen them play some of the most
exciting. At times they're unwatchable, but at other times you can't turn away.
Let's look at the record. At Spain 1982, their first appearance in the current
string, they were classic boring most of the way. The opening upset against
Argentina was your basic hang-on-rely-on-the
offside-trap-and-get-the-second-half-goal-for-the-winner stuff. And the rest of
the tournament they didn't do much more. They beat a very weak El Salvador
only 1-0, drew with Hungary 1-1, and went goalless and mostly lifeless in the
second round against Poland and the USSR. Boring boring Belgium--and yet,
their goal against Hungary was one of the most memorable of the tournament,
with Jan Ceulemans running half the length of the field, actually sliding in the
penalty area to beat a defender, then dishing to Alex Czerniatynski for the
goal that sent them into the second round.
Things started out boring again at Mexico 1986. First they were anesthetized
2:1 by the host team, managing only a lucky goal when the Mexican keeper
appeared to be flapping at a butterfly. They were nothing special in a 2:1 win
over Iraq. But then something odd happened. The midfield, anchored by the
canny and skilled Ceulemans and given spirit by a young star by the name of
Enzo Scifo, suddenly became a dynamic unit. In one of the better games of
the first round, they drew with Paraguay 2:2, producing the best team goal of
the tournament when Frank Vercauteren's inspired chip climaxed a three-pass
sequence. They wound up leading their group in goals scored.
And then they went further. Everyone who saw it remembers their epic 4:3
extra-time victory over USSR. They came from behind twice, and even though
Ceulemans' equalizer might have been offside (I've never seen a definitive
replay), Belgium were well worth their victory. Against Spain in the
quarterfinals they were inevitably less inspired, but still got a beautiful header
from Ceulemans and won through on penalties. Against Maradona in the
semis they were outclassed--but I wonder how many people remember that in
the first half, when the game was still scoreless, Belgium was robbed of a clear
breakaway chance by an obviously wrong offside call.
So cut to 4 years later, and Italia '90, a tournament synonymous with dullness.
Ceulemans was aging, but Scifo was now in his prime, and they were joined
by underrated left back Michel DeWolf. In the opener against South Korea,
Belgium were relatively ordinary, getting their first goal on a keeper mistake
even more egregious than the one in Mexico (Choi actually appeared to be
headed for the stands). The second, though, was a smashing shot from
DeWolf. And against Uruguay in the next round they produced one of the
finest games of the tournament. The midfield was once again operating at full
steam, and the game produced two memorable goals: a long range blast from
Scifo, and a beautiful sequence climaxed by a cross from DeWolf and a
tremendous header by Leo Clijsters. Against Spain, in the third group stage
game, they put on another fine show, losing 1:2 only when Scifo missed a
penalty. Again they had led their group in goals scored, and moved into the
second round as one of the dark horses in the tournament.
Then came the famous extra-time duel against England. The scoresheet shows
that Belgium played 120 minutes and didn't score, but that hardly does justice
to the quality of their game. They produced energetic, skilful play, and had
several oh-so-close chances; England were worthy winners, but everyone
agreed Belgium had greatly distinguished themselves. (You can get an
excellent account of the game in Pete Davies' book All Played Out.)
In 1994, it was Jekyll and Hyde once again. They were truly dreary in a 1:0
win over Morocco (another keeper mistake!), but followed with a scintillating
performance against Holland. Scifo and fellow midfielders Franky van der Elst
and Marc Degryse were in outstanding form, and although the winning goal,
by defender Philippe Albert, was lucky, the game was wonderful. So with a
spot in the second round assured, they didn't even show up against Saudi
Arabia, who beat them 1:0 on the famous solo goal by Saeed Al-Owairan.
They finished third in their group, limping embarrassingly into the Round of
16. But there they met Germany, and again played their part in one of the
most exciting matches of the tournament. They lost 2:3, and might have done
even better had they not been denied a clear penalty when Thomas Helmer
brought down Josip Weber--the referee, Kurt Roethlisberger, later admitted he
had blown the call, and was sent home in disgrace.
It was back to dullness in 1998. By now Scifo was past his prime, and there
was little or no inspiration in midfield. Against eternal rivals Holland they
decided to scratch and kick and bite and smash and get out the brass knuckles
and play for 0:0, which they duly got. (Although to be honest, Holland's
hideous blue-blue-orange strip deserved no better.) Against Mexico they were
thoroughly undistinguished, got two of the most inelegant goals of the
tournament from Marc Wilmots, and were caught from behind 2:2. Against
South Korea, a team that had allowed 8 goals in their first two games, they
managed only a 1:1 draw, and went home. From an entertainment standpoint,
it was the worst Belgian performance in 16 years.
And then Korea/Japan 2002, where dullness became arch-dullness. The first
hour of Belgium's game against Japan was without question one of the worst
World Cup games I have ever seen. (I'd rank it second only to the
unmentionable England-Ireland game in 1990.) Japan played long ball and
fouled; Belgium played muscle ball and fouled. Even members of the World
Masochist Society were phoning in at halftime to get the game stopped.
But…well, you probably saw it yourself. In the second half, Wilmots scored
on a bicycle kick (try that, Mister so-called Ronaldo!), and once again
Belgium were in full-dress entertainment mode. It was hardly stylish--this
wasn't Scifo and Ceulemans--but it was the furthest remove from boring. After
Japan went up 2:1, Peter van der Heyden scored on a wonderful lob over
keeper Seigo Narazaki, and the game finished 2:2.
So which Belgium would show up against Tunisia? Both. In the first 15
minutes they used the ground instead of the air, got some excellent midfield
circulation, and scored a neat goal when Branko Strupar headed down Van
der Heyden's cross for a slashing shot by Wilmots. At which point they
disappeared. Tunisia equalized shortly afterwards, then played for the draw,
and Belgium, with all their possession, didn't manage a single chance in the
entire second half.
Coming up next against Russia was what many had expected to be one of the
worst games of the tournament. But Belgium needed a win, so it was fun time
once more. Johan Walem scored early on a classic free kick, and although
Russia equalized, late goals from Wesley Sonck and Wilmots gave Belgium a
rollercoaster victory. For the third time in the last five WCs they had led their
group outright in goals scored--same as Germany and Spain, and surpassed
only by Brazil.
None other than Brazil was the opponent in the Round of 16, and the game
proved to be one of Belgium's most courageous World Cup performances
ever. Against all the odds, they started only one marking midfielder, and went
toe-to-toe with the Brazilians, attacking without the slightest hesitation. When
Wilmots headed home a cross in the 36th minute they were in the lead, and
not unfairly--except the goal was disallowed for a phantom foul. (The referee
was the notorious Peter Prendergast of Jamaica; ask me about him sometime.)
Nil-nil at the interval, and the second half was more of the same, with Marcos
forced to make outstanding saves from Wilmots (twice) and Mbo Mpenza.
Rivaldo's brilliant goal eventually decided the match, and Ronaldo got another
one late, but Brazil had without any question been outplayed. It was a display
worthy of 1986 and 1990. Impossible to believe this was the same team that
had delivered that ghastly first hour against Japan--but that's Belgium. (And
guess what? They won the 2002 WC Fair Play Award too!)
Unfortunately, the World Cup has been over for a while now, and the stats
show that Belgium is back to boredom. In Euro 2004 qualifying, they scored
only 11 goals in 8 games--and two of those games were against Andorra! Now
UEFA qualifying group 7 is coming up, with Spain, Serbia & Montenegro, and
Bosnia & Herzegovina on the agenda. All those teams can play exciting
football, and who knows? Belgium may be forced to play a little bit
themselves. As a Belgium fan in good standing, I hereby predict they score
more than their usual WCQ quota.
I won't get to see it, of course. American TV doesn't cover much of the UEFA
qualifiers, not even with 145 extra cable channels and pay-per-view. So if
they're hideously dull, I won't know about it. But in 2006, if Belgium are in
Germany--anyone out there ready to bet they won't be?--I'll see every minute.
And when they play, I'll don my reddest outfit (unless, of course, they decide
to play in that truly weird quasi-orange they wore last time), sing the Belgian
national anthem (assuming I can find the words and music on line), and lean
forward in my chair with ardent anticipation, ready to be thoroughly, utterly,
consummately bored. And thrilled, too.
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