10 Year Challenge: Belgium

Image result for belgium football team

Do you remember that 10 year challenge that appeared out of nowhere one day on Facebook and Instagram? The gods of social media instructed us to post old photos and we duly obliged. Anyway, that idea has been the inspiration behind this new series of articles I’ll be writing over the next few weeks. I am going to take successful teams from the present day and analyse the squads they had going into the 2009-10 season. There are many star studded and title winning teams who were relative minnows 10 years ago and their future success could not have been foreseen. Young football fans today may be totally oblivious to how different the footballing landscape used to be and hopefully this series of articles will be an effective history lesson.

The first team to undergo the 10 year challenge is Belgium, no 1. in the FIFA World Rankings and 2018 World Cup semi finalists. On paper, there are few better international squads than Belgium. From front to back they can boast the likes of Thibaut Courtois, Vincent Kompany, Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard to boot. There’s an old jibe that its impossible to name 5 famous Belgians, today’s squad have definitely put that issue to bed. Roberto Martinez is at the helm, a man who did very well to relegate Wigan and still get the top job in international football.

However, it was an altogether different picture for Belgium a decade ago. They were 66th in the FIFA rankings and an international irrelevancy. To put that into context, they were 30 rankings below Ecuador and 20 below Scotland. Outside of Belgium, I don’t think anyone would have been choosing them in FIFA 10. Before the 2014 World Cup the last major tournament featuring Belgium was the 2002 World Cup. We lived through the rise of Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and Messi and Belgium were still unable to muster a decent side.

The Belgian boom was greatly facilitated by the rise of young starlets like Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku who were both snapped up by Chelsea, one faring significantly better at Stamford Bridge than the other. Kevin de Bruyne also had an underwhelming time at Chelsea before blossoming into a midfield dynamo at Manchester City. The success of these individuals made Belgium serious international contenders and their previous mediocrity was largely forgotten. Let’s look at their squad in the 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign and see how it compares to today.

Goalkeeper: Logan Bailly

When I first read this name the first person that came to mind was that awful Youtuber Logan Paul so I already have a negative attitude towards this goalkeeper. Bailly was playing for Borussia Monchengladbach at the time who had a certain Marco Reus in their ranks. He was a steady Bundesliga keeper who would later have a few games for Celtic but nowhere near the level of Courtois. A strong core of goalkeepers has been crucial to Belgium’s rise as they have Simon Mignolet to call on if Courtois is in need of a rest. Bailly only featured once more for Belgium after that qualifying campaign and is currently without a club after being released by Royal Excel Mouscron.

Right back: Anthony Van den Borre

If you’ve ever heard of Anthony Van den Borre it’s probably from the hilarious Chris Kamara clip in which he didn’t notice a red card in the match he’s been watching. That was when Van den Borre was in the starting eleven for Portsmouth in the year they got relegated and also reached the FA Cup final. A young person today would be astounded to know that Belgium used to be fielding Portsmouth players in competitive fixtures. I’m being a bit harsh on Van den Borre as he was only 21 at the time and performed well for Belgium which secured him a spot in the 2014 World Cup squad.

Centre back: Daniel Van Buyten

When this team was playing, Van Buyten was one of the few players I knew. He had a reputation as a tough centre back for Bayern Munich and had 4 Premier League loan appearances for Man City. He was only 31 at the time but van Buyten was quite a slow player, exemplified by his 29 pace on FIFA. Van Buyten was arguably the most established player of this squad but he was eventually surpassed by Toby Aldeweireld. When Belgium qualified for the 2014 World Cup it was a nice touch that Van Buyten started their first match considering that he was the sole survivor from their last World Cup in 2002. The Belgian legend retired from international and club football upon Belgium’s exit from the tournament.

Centre back: Vincent Kompany

Here’s a player on the list who needs no introduction, the last firebrand Premier League captain cut from the mould of Keane and Vieira. A rallying figure on and off the pitch who helped radically change the fortunes of Belgium and Manchester City. Some may not realise than Kompany joined City in 2008, when they had money but no success. Dick Advocaat was managing Belgium at the time and relations were sour between him and Kompany. When Kompany wished to attend his grandmother’s funeral, conditions were placed on him by Advocaat, mainly that he could only go if he was back for 6pm. These ludicrous rules mattered little to Kompany who stayed out until midnight and was subsequently dropped from the squad. Needles to say, Kompany outlasted Advocaat at Belgium and was the lynchpin of their defence as they increased their international prowess.

Left back: Jelle van Damme

Next up is a left back who sounds like a budget version of Jean Claude van Damme. Like many Belgian players throughout the years, van Damme was playing for Anderlecht at the time but eventually moved to Wolverhampton Wanderers. Until researching this article I never knew Van Damme played for Wolves so he can’t have made much of an impression. Belgium do not have a plethora of natural left backs and have mainly resorted to playing either Jan Vertonghen or Thomas Vermaelen in the position. With average performances and racist language from his club days, Van Damme is a player fans wish was left back in the changing room.

Centre Midfielder: Timmy Simons

During the 2010 qualification campaign Timmy Simons was the captain of the Belgian national team. Simons may not be a very well known player nowadays but he is a legend amongst Belgian fans. His 94 caps make him the fifth highest appearance holder in the team’s history and most of those appearances came whilst playing for Belgian side Club Brugge. Like Kompany, he was not favoured by Advocaat but thrived under other managers in what was a difficult period for Belgium. Simons also became Belgium’s oldest international player when aged 39, he turned against Estonia in November 2016.

Centre Midfielder: Steven Defour

Around 2010 and 2011 all British newspapers kept promoting the rumour that Steven Defour was going to join Manchester United. This all originated from Sir Alex Ferguson writing a letter to him whilst he was injured but there was little substance to the story. Defour is a small creative midfielder who is currently in the Premier League with Burnley and has impressed in patches. He made a name for himself at Belgian club Standard Liege which helped him land a move to Porto in 2011. Defour maintained his place in the squad to get on the plane to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup. It wasn’t the best of tournaments for Defour personally as he only played in the last group game and was sent off in the first half.

Right Winger: Axel Witsel

Axel Witsel is mainly known for playing in an attacking midfield role but his international career began on the right wing. I can’t help but feel that Witsel is an example of wasted talent. Moves to Zenit and Tianjin Quanjian both smack of someone who was more interested in moving to the rich clubs of the day rather than advancing his career. It’s not to discredit Witsel’s obvious ability but to suggest that with wiser moves, he would have been a better player.

Left winger: Kevin Mirallas

Similarly to Witsel, Mirallas was a player full of potential who delivered on occasion but was not an overly consistent performer. Mirallas gained his first Belgium cap at 19 and featured prominently in the 2010 qualification campaign. Not to be ridiculous with my comparisons, but Mirallas seemed like someone who modelled his playing style on Cristiano Ronaldo. Slick hair with a penchant for bombing down the left wing and chopping inside for a shot. He played but did not score in the 2014 World Cup, Dries Mertens gradually became Belgium’s preferred left winger. I was shocked to discover that Mirallas still plays for Everton given that his last good performance was around 2013.

Striker: Emile Mpenza

In the recesses of my mind there is a memory of Emile Mpenza scoring a toe poked free kick for Man City. For any young readers, yes, there was a time when Man City were an average side without star names. Mpenza retired from international football midway through the qualification campaign which was odd considering he had scored twice against Turkey. If Mpenza had have stayed in the squad perhaps things would have been different. It was only downhill for him after that as he saw out the end of his career playing in Azerbaijan.

Striker: Wesley Sonck

Much like Timmy Simons, Wesley Sonck is a player who is regarded as an international great amongst Belgians but little known elsewhere. His international scoring record of 21 goals in 65 games made me surprised I hadn’t heard more about him. The qualifying campaign for South Africa was the most prolific goal scoring period of his Belgium career, picking up 6 goals. The most notable goal that Sonck managed was against Spain which was the first goal Spain had conceded in 710 minutes of play.

This was by no means a bad squad and reading through this list of names, its difficult to imagine that they were 66th in the world rankings. I think history has shown that the young players in this squad just needed a few years to mature before they were ready to challenge for titles.

(Image credit, https://medium.com/@peter.rosseel/how-our-current-culture-will-prevent-the-belgian-football-team-from-ever-winning-the-world-cup-c52daf2653fd )

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