(The Red Devils)
Third Place: 1 (2018)
Fourth Place: 1 (1986)
Quarter Finalists: 1 (2014)
Round of 16: 5 (1934, 1938, 1990, 1994, 2002)
Group Stage: 5 (1930, 1954, 1970, 1982, 1998)
Current FIFA Ranking: 2
Kevin De Bruyne
Group F Schedule
Game 1 – Wednesday 23rd November 2022
Game 2 – Sunday 27th November 2022
16:00 Qatar Time/13:00 GMT
Al Thumama Stadium, Doha
Game 3 – Thursday 1st December 2022
18:00 Qatar Time/15:00 GMT
Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, Al Rayyan
Belgium’s greatest ever achievement came in 1920, when they won the Summer Olympics on home soil. Their best placing in the World Cup is third place at the previous edition, and their best showings at the European Championship are runners-up in 1980 and third in 1972.
Belgium have a long and extensive past in football’s history, and the country have contributed plenty to international football. They were one of the first continental European nations to play the game, it first being played there in 1863. The Royal Belgian Football Association (RBFA) was subsequently founded three decades later, in 1985. The national team played its first official match on 1 May 1904, drawing 3-3 with France in Uccle, then the RBFA helped found FIFA later that year.
Belgium had a very successful start to international football, which was in its infancy, when they won the 1920 Summer Olympics on home soil. The final against Czechoslovakia was however an extremely controversial affair, the match having been abandoned due to the Czechs leaving the pitch in the 39th minute in protest at the officiating after the Belgians raced into a 2-0 lead after half an hour. It remains the only time an international final has ever been abandoned, but despite the polemic, the result stood and Belgium were Olympic champions. In 1924 and 1928 they participated in the Olympics again, but could only manage a round of 16 and quarter final place respectively. 1928 was to be the last time they applied to enter the Olympic football tournament for 52 years.
A Modest Start in the World Cup
The team then entered the inaugural 1930 World Cup in Uruguay, making the long trip to South America by ship, but they lost both of their games against the United States and Paraguay, conceding four goals without scoring any in reply. The following two World Cups were equally dismal, with losses to Nazi Germany in 1934 and France in 1938 being their only games due to the tournament being reformatted into a straight knockout. Belgium did not enter the 1950 World Cup, but they returned in 1954 in Switzerland where the day before the RBFA became one of the founders of UEFA. With striker and captain Joseph Mermans leading the line (Mermans remains Belgium’s sixth highest all-time top scorer, with 27 goals in 56 appearances) Belgium were relatively fancied. In a highly unusual and unique format, Belgium drew their first group game with England 4-4 after extra time, which had some proclaiming them as favourites for the trophy. This enthusiasm was quickly dispersed, however, after a 4-1 rout by Italy brought the Belgians back down to earth.
Period of Decline
Switzerland 1954 was in fact the only tournament that Belgium played in in the fifties and sixties, with a combination of not entering tournaments or not being capable of qualifying due to being overtaken by other nations. They did however defeat reigning World Champions West Germany in 1954 and Brazil in 1963, as well as defeating Hungary’s Magical Magyars in 1956. This earned the Belgians a very condescending nickname – ‘world champions of the friendlies’ – as those outside looked at the underperforming national team with disparagement and derision.
Belgium did qualify for the World Cup in 1970, but a team led by coach Raymond Goethals could not pass the group stage. Despite possessing the fantastic captain and forward Paul Van Himst (who scored 233 goals in 457 games for Anderlecht and 30 goals in 81 games for Belgium), their solitary victory came in the first game against Honduras (their first ever victory at the World Cup), while defeats to the Soviet Union and hosts Mexico followed. They then qualified for their first European Championship in 1972, eliminating hosts Italy in the quarter final stage, which was a pre-qualifier. At the tournament they finished third, which highlighted that they were making some progress. However, failures to qualify for the next three tournaments – the World Cups of 1974 and 1978 and Euro 1976 – ensued. 1974 was particularly bitter as they became the only national team ever to fail to qualify for a World Cup despite conceding no goals in qualification.
The First Golden Era: Part 1
Better though was to come for the Belgians, as the next fifteen to twenty years are generally thought of as the nation’s first golden age. Coached by Guy Thys and including now well-renowned Belgian players such as goalkeeper Jean-Marie Pfaff , right-back Eric Gerets and talented centre forwards Jan Cuelemans and Franky Van der Elst, at Euro 1980 they first won their group, draws with England and Italy sandwiched by a defeat of Spain. They had made it to the final, and in the game, they pushed West Germany all the way, losing 2-1 to an 88th minute header by Horst Hrubesch. However, the Belgians had impressed during the tournament and this was clearly the best iteration of the national side ever, with Euro 1980 remaining Belgium’s greatest ever performance in the European Championship or World Cup. Indeed, they then proceeded to go on a run of qualifying for six consecutive World Cups between 1982 and 2002. In the 1982 tournament in Spain, Belgium shocked world champions Argentina with a 1-0 win in the opening game of the tournament at Barcelona’s Camp Nou. A victory over El Salvador followed, and then a draw with Hungary saw the Belgians proceed to the second group stage. This stage proved fruitless however, with defeats to Poland and the Soviet Union, with talented young striker Zbigniew Boniek scoring a hat-trick in the former.
A group stage finish followed in Euro 1984, but 1986 in Mexico was an interesting tournament for Belgium, as they attained their best ever World Cup finish at that point in time, finishing in fourth place. Victories over the Soviet Union and Spain after extra-time in the knockout round were impressive, but they were ultimately undone by Argentina and Diego Maradona at the height of his genius, with him scoring two goals to eliminate the Belgians in the semi-final, one after a fantastic dribble. A 4-2 loss to France after extra time followed in the third place play off, but it had been a very successful tournament for Belgium. Indeed, Pfaff and Cuelemans were the first Belgians ever to be named in a World Cup team of the tournament, and the extremely talented youngster Enzo Scifo was named best young player of the tournament. Scifo was a highly classy and tactically and technically proficient playmaker, and to this day he remains one of the greatest Belgian players ever, having starred in three further World Cups after his exploits in 1986.
The First Golden Era: Part 2
Belgium failed to qualify for another Euros until 2000, but they were still going strong in the World Cup. Indeed, 1990 and 1994 proved to be further decent showings, emerging from the group in both but ultimately falling at the first knockout hurdle in the round of 16, to England and Germany respectively. At both these tournaments, Scifo was present and in his prime, whereas forward Luc Nilis and young attacking midfielder Marc Wilmots had emerged. Scifo starred at the tournament, but Wilmots would have to wait until 1998 in France to seize his first real chance at the World Cup. As a starter in 1998, he managed to score two goals, both in a draw with Mexico, but three draws ultimately sent the Belgians home in the group stage.
After a sixteen-year absence from the European Championship, they qualified in 2000, but were again eliminated again after the group. It seemed as though Belgian football was on a downturn, especially given Scifo’s international retirement after France ‘98, but they did qualify for the 2002 tournament in South Korea and Japan. There, Belgium managed to finish second in their group to hosts Japan, with Wilmots scoring three goals (one apiece against Japan, Tunisia and Russia) to make him Belgium’s highest ever scorer at the World Cup, with five goals (a record he now shares with Romelu Lukaku). However, they were beaten 2-0 by Brazil in the second round, though Brazilian coach Luis Felipe Scolari praised them after Brazil’s victorious tournament, by saying they had been Brazil’s toughest opponents.
The Second Golden Era
However, worse was to follow, as previous suspicions were confirmed when Belgium entered a period of steep decline, failing to qualify for five successive tournaments – the Euros of 2004, 2008 and 2012 and the Worlds Cups of 2006 and 2010. The Wilmots generation had aged, and for a long time it seemed there was nothing exciting on the horizon. However, Belgium had worked hard on youth development, and circa 2008 a new generation of talented players was appearing. Participating in their first Olympics in eighty years, a talented under-23 squad containing now well-renowned Belgian players such as Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen, Jan Vertonghen, Kevin Mirallas and Moussa Dembele attained fourth place. These were later added to by Toby Alderweireld, Axel Witsel, fantastic creative attackers Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard, and lethal striker Romelu Lukaku. A second golden generation had come about.
Progress took time, with the aforementioned failures to qualify for South Africa 2010 and Euro 2012, but Wilmots took over as coach and Belgium returned to the international tournament stage at Brazil ‘14. They won their three group games, defeating all of Algeria, Russia and South Korea by the odd goal. They then faced the United States with American goalkeeper Tim Howard making fifteen saves. The Belgians had dominated the Americans and tried everything to knock down the door, eventually making the breakthrough with goals from De Bruyne and Lukaku in extra-time. However, a Lionel Messi inspired Argentina eliminated them in the quarter finals. At Euro 2016 the side were heavily fancied, but were shocked by Wales and ultimately lost in the quarter final.
Then the 2018 World Cup under new coach Roberto Martinez in Russia happened, which remains Belgium’s greatest ever World Cup performance. They topped their group with maximum points, including defeats over Panama, Tunisia and England. They then displayed their mental strength by coming back from 2-0 down to Japan to win 3-2 in the second round, with a winner from Nacer Chadli in the last minute of stoppage time. A highly impressive defeat of Brazil ensued, in a tactical and entertaining match, before a relatively drab affair with France saw them exit at the semi-final stage. Still, it had been a very impressive tournament, and they found some consolation with a 2-0 victory over England in the third-place match – their second matchup with the English at this tournament. Lukaku won the Bronze Boot with four goals and Hazard was named second best player of the tournament, winning the Silver Ball.
The Last Chance for the Second Golden Generation?
Since then, Martinez presided over three consecutive years at number one in the FIFA World Rankings, and an unfortunate defeat to Italy at Euro 2020, as well as a place in the 2021 Nations League Finals. However, the second golden team is ageing just as the first did, and if they are to outdo the first iteration and win a trophy, you would imagine the time has to be now. Drawn in a relatively favourable group with Croatia, Canada and Morocco, they will be confident of qualifying for the knockout stage, where Spain or Germany may lie in wait.
Road to Qualification
UEFA Group E: 1st
Record: Played:8 W: 6 D:2 L:0 F:25 A:6 GD: +19 Points: 20
Date of Qualification: 13th November 2021
Qualification was never in doubt for the Belgians. Drawn into a group also comprising Wales, Czech Republic, Estonia and Belarus, they won 6 of the matches and drew two, one of the draws being academic in the final game in Cardiff. As Wales and the Czechs scrapped it out for the playoff spot, Belgium scored an impressive 25 goals over their 8 games and finished a clear 5 points ahead of the Welsh. Other than the aforementioned draw in Wales, the other blemish was a 1-1 draw in the Czech Republic in the second game, but Belgium have made light work of these qualification sections in recent years and this was no exception. An 8-0 win over Belarus was their biggest margin of victory, and their top scorer in the group was Romelu Lukaku with 5 goals. Progressing so comfortably from a group containing fellow qualifiers Wales and a decent Czech team, Wales will be confident when travelling to Qatar.
Meet the Coach: Roberto Martínez (age 49)
A tough but technical defensive midfielder, Martinez is best known as a player for his time with Wigan Athletic and Swansea City, making over 300 appearances combined for the clubs. He had a modest career, but he did win the Football League Third Division with Wigan in 1997 (now League Two). On a personal level, he was named in the division’s team of the year both in 1996 and 1997. He retired aged 33 when he became Swansea City player-manager in 2007 but felt he could no longer fulfil his commitments on the playing side. As Swansea coach, he won the 2007-2008 League One title and was named the 2008 League One Manager of the Year. He then took over at Wigan, stepping up to the Premier League. He led Wigan to their greatest ever achievement, winning the 2013 FA Cup. However, they were also relegated that season. Martinez had impressed though with a smaller club and Everton came calling. He started well there, but things turned sour and he was sacked at the end of the 2015-2016 season.
A few months later, Martinez was named Belgium coach. He has come to achieve much of what has been described above, and his run to third place at the 2018 World Cup was particularly impressive – it also gained him a nomination in the FIFA Men’s Coach of that year. Under Martinez, Belgium also climbed to first in the World Rankings in September 2018, and were still there three years later, setting a new record. He has also recently set the record for the most wins in Belgian national team history, and as a result of his accomplishments with the team is widely respected by his players. In Qatar, he will look to play his expansive, pressing, entertaining style of football, and his Belgium team remains impressive and one of the prime candidates to win the trophy.
Possible Starting XI and Style of Play
Though it is ageing, Martinez is likely to retain faith in much of the golden generation. In goal, Thibaut Courtois remains number one, with Simon Mignolet as his deputy. However, recent issues with sciatica have seen Courtois miss games for Real Madrid, casting doubt over his participation. Martinez likes to play three at the back, with Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen having amassed over 250 caps between them. They are likely to be joined by one of Leander Dendoncker or Zeno Debast. This wealth of experience at the back will prove crucial defensively in Qatar. Other options include Wout Faes and Arthur Theate. There are numerous options at wing-back, with Thorgan Hazard, Thomas Meunier, Timothy Castagne, and Yannick Carrasco able to play on either side. They are all very attacking options, with Hazard and Carrasco having been converted from wide forwards. Martinez will expect them to bomb forward and support the attack. In midfield, the experienced Axel Witsel and talented Youri Tielemans will try to control the game. They are good passers, and their pressing (along with that of the front players) will be crucial. Hans Vanaken provides backup.
In attack, Romelu Lukaku has struggled at Chelsea but will be expected to lead the line if he can get over his injury problems. His backups are Michy Batshuayi and Lois Openda. Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard are Belgium’s two most talented players and will play free roles behind the striker. De Bruyne can move out wide and into midfield, and Hazard has the freedom to roam in attack – the 3-4-2-1 can also be a flexible 3-4-3. De Bruyne’s diligent pressing, outstanding passing ability, exceptional shooting and talent in controlling the game will be vital, as will Hazard’s dribbling and passing skill. There is quite the embarrassment of riches to add to these two, with Dries Mertens, Leandro Trossard, and exciting younger players Jeremy Doku and Charles De Ketelaere all possessing combinations of pace, guile, dribbling and passing quality. Martinez knows that this creative depth behind the striker is integral to Belgium’s prospects at the tournament. These reinforcements provide great squad depth if anything goes wrong with De Bruyne or Hazard regarding injury or fatigue. Indeed, Hazard has had his issues at Real Madrid in recent years. Belgium will look to control games and create chances. Indeed, they will try to play exciting football.
Goalkeepers: Thibaut Courtois, Simon Mignolet, Koen Casteels
Defenders: Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Leander Dendoncker, Zeno Debast, Arthur Theate, Wout Faes
Midfielders: Hans Vanaken, Axel Witsel, Youri Tielemans, Amadou Onana, Kevin De Bruyne, Yannick Carrasco, Thorgan Hazard, Timothy Castagne, Thomas Meunier
Forwards: Romelu Lukaku, Michy Batshuayi, Lois Openda, Charles De Ketelaere, Eden Hazard, Jeremy Doku, Dries Mertens, Leandro Trossard
Kevin De Bruyne
Date and Place of Birth: (28.06.1991, Drongen)
Current Club: Manchester City
Widely considered to be the best midfielder in the world and one of the best players of his generation, De Bruyne is 31 now but still at the peak of his powers. After impressing in Germany in spells at Werder Bremen and Wolfsburg, De Bruyne got his move to Manchester City in 2015. There, he has become the team’s most creative player, accumulating 58 goals and an incredible 132 assists in 320 matches, and forming exciting midfield partnerships with the likes of fellow geniuses David Silva and Bernardo Silva. He has won four Premier League titles in his time in Manchester, as well as numerous cups, and this shows no signs of abating as this season he has formed a formidable partnership with new City striker Erling Haaland. Described as the complete modern midfielder and footballer, his passing, dribbling, shooting, pressing, and ability to control the game are all of an extremely high level and he will be Belgium’s most important player in Qatar. His influence cannot be overstated.
Date and Place of Birth (13.05.1993, Antwerp)
Current Club: Inter Milan, on loan from Chelsea
Caps: Goals: 102/68
Lukaku started his senior career at Anderlecht, scoring 41 goals in 98 games. Tipped for stardom from the start, he has had an extensive career in the Premier League, playing for Chelsea (twice), West Bromwich Albion, Everton and Manchester United. He has scored over 100 goals in the competition, joining an exclusive club consisting of 33 players, such as legends Alan Shearer and Thierry Henry. He joined Inter in 2019, scoring 65 goals in 98 games for the club, and won Serie A in 2021, on a personal level also winning Serie A Footballer of the Year. He returned to Chelsea in 2021 with much fanfare, but it has been considered a failure, and he is back at Inter on loan this season. His strength allows him to bully defences, and his pace to dribble past players, but he has long been criticised for a perceived lack of technique, with critics claiming he has a poor first touch and passing and lacks the hold-up play and link up play expected of such a physical centre forward. Still, he is Belgium’s key number 9, being their all-time record goalscorer with 68 goals, and will be expected to produce in Qatar while being supplied by the playmakers and wing-backs. He lists his idol as the Brazilian Ronaldo.
Date and Place of Birth: (07.01.1991, La Louviere)
Current Club: Real Madrid
A prodigious talent since his teenage years, Hazard burst onto the scene as an explosive winger at Lille in France, winning the 2011 Ligue One Title. He moved to Chelsea in 2012, where he spent 7 years being one of the most electric wingers in the Premier League, winning the title twice (2015 and 2017), the Europa League twice (2013 and 2019) and the FA Cup and EFL Cup once apiece (2018 and 2015 respectively). He terrified opposition defences throughout his time in England, cementing his legacy as one of the best players of his generation through his dribbling, pace, creativity and ability to play a through ball. He won the 2015 PFA and FWA Footballer of the Year awards (amongst other individual accolades) to recognise his contribution at Chelsea, and won the Silver ball at Russia 2018 too after a fantastic tournament. He has struggled since moving to Real Madrid, having issues with his fitness and weight and being in and out of the team, but he has won La Liga twice and the Champions League last May. He is a very unselfish player, and has been criticised for not scoring enough goals, but in many ways, he is a throwback to the maverick geniuses of the past who were more concerned with entertaining than scoring. Like De Bruyne, he will be absolutely crucial for Belgium in Qatar, and they will need him fit and on top form.