Peter Goldstein

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 this event.

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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 Marino. Grim.

    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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