Waiting game over as Belgium take starter’s orders
Belgium take on Algeria today in their first World Cup appearance for 12 years
Belgium’s national team head coach Marc Wilmots: has emerged as an intriguing figure in their rise and will be a key influence.
The Dutch like to joke about Belgian waiters, and among the fancied teams, Marc Wilmots’s side are this tournament’s most eminent waiters, their first appearance not coming until six long days in.
We have been waiting too, to see what happens when all those components we have heard so much about – Courtois, Kompany, Witsel, Hazard et al – are slotted together on the world stage. Will they drop the glasses or polish the silverware? In truth, we don’t know what to expect, and neither do they.
Belgium’s status as fifth favourites going into the World Cup was a tribute to their potential rather than their pedigree: this is, after all, their first finals appearance in 12 years.
Perhaps it is the paradoxes that make them so alluring. Untested, young and inexperienced as a unit, they are frighteningly mature as individuals. A squad traditionally split along French-Flemish lines has been unified by its very differences – a rainbow coalition of second-generation players of African descent, led by the Congolese-parented Vincent Kompany.
Above all, they have very good players, some of whom have just won the Premier League (Kompany), the FA Cup (Thomas Vermaelen), La Liga (Courtois and Toby Alderweireld), the Bundesliga (Daniel van Buyten), the Coppa Italia (Dries Mertens), as well as young player of the year in England (Hazard). Others play for Spurs.
It’s quite a haul, and illustrates a champion mentality that, in their status of tournament novices, they are perhaps not given credit for. It is hard to see where the often- held assumption that ordinary Portugal would stop them in the second round (if Belgium win Group H) comes from.
Intriguing figureManager Marc Wilmots has emerged as an intriguing figure in their rise and will be a key influence. The former international midfielder, in charge since 2012, brings plenty of World Cup experience, having made eight appearances and scored five goals in the three finals campaigns: 1994, 1998 and 2002. Apart from know-how, Wilmots had a reputation as a dogged player, nicknamed Kampfschwein (“The Fighting Pig”) by the Schalke fans in front of whom he dug in. What questions there are over Belgium surround their heart and tenacity: collectively they are untested in times of trouble, and in these situations The Fighting Pig’s leadership will matter.
The four-year contract extension that Wilmots was recently awarded, worth a reported €800,000 a year, is reward for shrewdness as well as success. Tough love has gone down well with players, and morale has improved since the notorious incident in 2011 when Hazard, substituted by then manager Georges Leekens during a European qualifier, walked out of the stadium to a nearby hamburger stall.
ShuffleWilmots like to shuffle his players when required, and if that speaks well of his options – there have been reports of fierce clashes in training games – it has not been a trouble-free build-up to Brazil. Christian Benteke’s injury has deprived them of striker who led the line perfectly.
Roman Lukaku brings good physicality to the role, and he scored four goals in two recent friendlies, but he is raw at this level.
Hazard has not yet produced his best Chelsea form for the national team, while Marouane Fellaini’s bruising season has pushed him out of the team. At the back Courtois’s brilliance is well established, but the talent is lopsided in front of him, with many good centre-backs and not enough full-backs. How much control they exert in midfield, with Witsel a key figure, will determine a lot.
It would be a major surprise if they did not win in Belo Horizonte today, but smart people have been tipping Algeria to perform well here after sneaking though the African qualifiers on away goals. Key names (we hear) in a squad built around French-born players, taking advantage of Algeria’s army of migrants abroad, include playmaking midfielder Sofiane Feghouli, Napoli defender Faouizi Ghoulam, and lively Ishak Belfodil up front.
They finished bottom of their group in South Africa in 2010 but have high hopes of improving on that. Experienced and will regarded coach Vahid Halilhodzic speaks of having “assets to exploit”.
Wilmots spoke this week of the importance of pre-match work: videos for his players, dossiers on opponents handed out to each and every one: “So we are ready, we know everything about Algeria, but what I’m interested in is that our players know all about it.” So Belgium are well prepared: but are they ready?