Belgium ready for new chapter versus Argentina
Belgium vs Argentina. It's a big one -- and not only because the winner is through to the last four on the World Cup. In Belgium, the game has extra history attached.
1982, 13 June, Barcelona. Facing off at Nou Camp for the opening game of the World Cup are reigning world champions Argentina and vice-European champions Belgium. A clash of styles. Belgium are not noted for their attractive football. They tend to rely on resolute defending, then hit opponents on the break. It is a team of obstinate fighters and many an opponent is left with bruised ankles and shins.
Argentina plays fluent, attacking football and boasts a young world-beater called Diego Armando Maradona, who is expected to set the tournament alight. But Belgium's head coach, Guy Thys has a plan. Ludo Coeck, their most technically gifted player, is sacrificed in a cynical display of anti-football. He tracks and harasses Maradona for 90 minutes, effectively taking him out of the game. Belgium win by a solitary goal from Erwin Vandenbergh.
The game is legendary in Belgium, in part thanks to Flemish commentator Rik De Saedeleer's reaction. "There he is! There he is!" he shouted as Frank Vercauteren sent a brilliant long the ball to Vandenbergh, who controlled it and beat Ubaldo Fillol with a low shot. "There he is, there he is! Goooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooool! Gol, gol, gol, gol, gol de Belgica!" In Belgium, it has the same status Kenneth Wolstenholme's "They think it's all over..." has in England.
Belgium continued with a weak 1-0 win over El Salvador and then drew 1-1 with Hungary. The key moment of that game came when goalkeeper Jean-Marie Pfaff came out of his area and collided heavily with right back Eric Gerets, who was injured. Thys replaced Pfaff with Theo Custers for the next game against Poland and Zbigniew Boniek destroyed Belgium with a hat trick. Belgium, with yet another goalkeeper, Jacky Munaron, then lost 1-0 to the Soviet Union to put a disappointing end to a tournament that had started on an enormous high.
Four years later, another World Cup, this time in Mexico. Belgium have surprised the world, not least themselves, by reaching the semifinals. The squad includes Jan Ceulemans, Enzo Scifo, Jean-Marie Pfaff, Eric Gerets, Georges Grun and many more who will go on to become household names in Belgium as this group of players is branded "Belgium's golden generation."
But to inverse a popular saying, not all that is golden, glitters. Belgium never played well. Their football was still based on dogged defending and physical strength. They scraped through the first round as the best of the third-place teams after losing to Mexico, narrowly beating Iraq and drawing with Paraguay. The second round against the Soviet Union and the quarterfinal against Spain are the stuff of legend in Belgium but again, it was a matter of never say die, more than quality.
And then came Argentina. After England had been hit by the "Hand of God", Belgium twice experienced the "Flag of God" in the first half as two promising counterattacks were stopped for nonsensical offside decisions. In the second half, Maradona got his revenge for 1982. He sliced through the Belgian defence twice for as many goals to see Belgium off.
Contrary to England with the handled ball, Belgium never made much of the two offside decisions. They are rarely mentioned in the heroic stories of "when we were the fourth best team in the world." Every football fan in Belgium cherishes the memory and remembers the goals, only too happy to forget about the actual football.
Around the world, the game is hardly remembered. Tellingly, a photograph often shown in its context doesn't even have anything to do with it. On it, Maradona is on the ball, facing six Belgian players seemingly trying to stop him. In fact, the picture was just as Maradona hit a free kick and the Belgians left the wall. More importantly, it's actually from 1982.
These two games loom large over Saturday's quarterfinal. The 'golden generation' is mentioned daily as the current players to emulate the success of 1986. In fact, the whole comparison is based only on the fact that Belgium are playing Argentina. The rest is rubbish, and there is a good reason for saying so.
Belgium 2014 has already emulated Belgium 1986. While the 1986 team qualified for the World Cup after two playoff games against Holland, having finished second in their group, the 2014 version stormed through qualifying, playing some impressive football to win their group a staggering nine points ahead of Croatia. Eight wins, two draws, eighteen goals for, four against.
And if the football wasn't exciting in the first round games, it was solid and fair. And it was immensely effective: played three, won three, a penalty the only conceded goal. But the football showed during the second round game against the United States was mesmerising. Thirty-nine shots on goal, 27 on target. Insane statistics in this day and age. The only thing stopping the game from turning into a massacre was Tim Howard's unbelievable performance in the U.S. goal. It will take some performance to stop him from being named best goalkeeper of the tournament.
Belgium are finally playing football the way it was meant to be played. And already it feels a lot better than 1986. Because the other thing is that, as opposed to 1986, this time it feels like it is just the beginning, because there is a belief starting to build in Belgium that they can actually do this. For a country always so eager to be the underdog, this is shocking.
But the truth is that rather than looking at the threat of Lionel Messi and how to counter it, if Belgium look at Argentina's weakness at the back and play the same game, they will score. That defence is slow and cumbersome. And Sergio Romero is no Howard. As I said a month ago, no one is certain to stop this team. No one.
Wim Van Walle has contributed to ESPNFC since 2010. Back in 1980, his passion for football was decided by the teams of the day. And apparently it stuck. Three decades later, Van Walle is still as passionate about Belgium's Red Devils and Nottingham Forest.