Tomorrow, Belgium will play its most important game for 12 years. On 17 June, 2002, Belgium lost 2-0 to Brazil in a match remembered by Belgians for Marc Wilmots’ disallowed goal. Now Wilmots is back and he’s in charge of a group known variously as ‘a golden generation’, ‘dark horses’ or ‘everyone’s favourite second team’.
That’s because half of the squad play in the Premier League and as everyone knows, it’s the greatest league in the World. Well, the most spectacular perhaps but not always with matches of the highest quality. The end result has been, whichever way you cut it, that although Belgium have got maximum points, the performances have not lived up to the (over-hyped) expectations.
The team has not really clicked and so far they’ve managed about 20 minutes of effective football. As for the Premier League stars, the major contributions to-date have come from Axel Witsel (Zenit Saint Petersburg), Dries Mertens (Napoli), Divock Origi (Lille) and Daniel Van Buyten (unattached).
There was a five minutes cameo from Chelsea’s Eden Hazard against Russia and, to be fair, he had a clutch of Russians watching him closer than the KGB. I am not saying the squad is not talented. It most certainly is, but this young group is inexperienced at the highest levels of international tournament football. They are on a learning curve, as is Wilmots.
As for the latest player to arrive on the back pages, Origi is an interesting character. Aged 19, his Kenyan father played for Oostende and Genk and Divock was born in the former city. Unknown a couple of weeks ago except to his family, friends and Lille supporters, Origi scored against Russia and now Liverpool have offered 10 million euros for the boy. Romelu Lukaku – yesterday’s top teenager – has several points to prove.
But what about the USA? I spoke to Liviu Bird, who writes for Sports Illustrated and – during the World Cup – the Telegraph, about American ‘soccer’. Asked about expectations, He feels that the fans didn’t think Klinsmann’s men would emerge from a group that contained Germany and Portugal.
There’s a parallel here with Belgium, as most fans felt they would get out of their – relatively easy –group, but would then have problems with Portugal, possibly, and Germany, certainly. So it’s a game that no one foresaw; of the two teams, the US squad has the better form to-date.
Americans are excited about the progress, and Liviu says that’s true even for those who only watch ‘soccer’ every four years. Likewise, Belgians are getting behind Wilmots’ team in a way that has never been seen before. The country is awash with Belgian flags – in a country that is not known for nationalism – and there has been massive merchandising and a spectacularly successful marketing campaign which led to all of the qualification games being sold out.
But that’s where the comparison ends as the USA has 300 million inhabitants while Belgium has 11 million. That makes it the size of Ohio.
Liviu highlights Fabian Johnson, Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman as USA’s stand-out performers in the group stage. None can be said to be household names – certainly not in Belgium – in the sense that they haven’t had Premier League exposure but they have all been doing the jobs that Klinsmann asked them to do.
He included five German-Americans in his squad and both Johnson and Jones have fathers who were US servicemen. That gives this American team a multicultural feel which is increased when the Icelandic, Norwegian, Haitian and Mexican-Americans are added in. Belgium, of course, has a squad that includes players whose roots can be found in the Congo, Morocco, Spain, Mali and Martinique. The Belgian Football Association was somewhat behind the French equivalent in enticing second-generation immigrants into the fold but it’s paying off now.
According to Liviu, the Belgian players getting most of the publicity are Hazard, Lukaku and Fellaini which again takes us back to the power of the Premier League. He argues that USA will play in a defensive mode and hope to breakdown Belgium on the counter-attack. My gut feeling tells me that Belgium might play the same way – even if Wilmots selects an attacking line-up on paper – and that this could lead to stalemate. Tactically, Belgium needs to play to its strengths – on the wings – and bring whoever plays, from Hazard, Mertens, Mirallas and Januzaj, into the game as fast as possible. Belgium’s play has been somewhat laborious to-date and it needs to change.
If it is a stalemate, Wilmots has gone as far as saying he has seven names in his head if it comes to penalties. As an aside, he mentioned that Hazard, Mertens and Kevin Mirallas are useful penalty takers but, as usual, he’s keeping his cards to his chest.
Tomorrow will be a big game. The USA didn’t expect to get this far and Belgium didn’t think they would be playing the Americans. Both teams will treat the other with respect but don’t expect a spectacular game. And remember, Lionel Messi and his chums are likely to be waiting in the wings.