Today, the FIFA World Cup in Russia will be kicking off. Excitement is tangible in all participating countries, with favourites already been designated left right and centre.
To many observers, one of the participants, the star-studded Belgian squad, is considered an important outsider, a dark horse that stands a good chance of running an excellent race.
With 12 appearances so far, Belgium has been a regular contender in the final stages of the World Cup. Their best result was a 4th spot in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, with superstars Jean-Marie Pfaff and Enzo Scifo.
Belgium hopes to repeat or indeed surpass this exploit in Russia. The signs are promising: the Belgian squad hurled through their qualifying matches like a whirlwind, losing not a single match, scoring a record 43 goals, and qualifying as the first European team for Russia.
What makes the Belgian team stand out, and what is the secret of Belgium’s success? Questions for Bart De Groof, the Belgian ambassador in Doha.
Q: Why does Belgium have such a good team ?
A: Belgium is a small country of 11mn inhabitants, and yet we are witnessing a proliferation of very talented players, competing with the absolute world top. We can certainly speak of a ‘golden generation’. Partly, this is just due to good luck, but there’s more to it.
Firstly, Belgium has sports in its genes. Football is the most popular sport at the moment but it’s not the only one. For instance, Belgians are smitten with cycling, where we have an unparalleled tradition. Cycling legends such as Eddy Merckx are well known in Qatar, as he was involved in the organisation of the Tour of Qatar and the World Cycling championships in 2016 in Doha. More recently, swimming and especially hockey have become very popular, and our hockey team, the Red Lions have won silver in the Rio Olympic games in 2016.
But undoubtedly football is king at the moment, and the Belgian team, commonly known as the Red Devils, is immensely popular. They act as a catalyst for the promotion of football in the country. This way, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Many young children are inspired by their great idols and are keen to start to play football themselves. The Belgian football federation is highly professional and steers all this young talent in a remarkable yet judicious manner, starting from the very basics, fostering young kids’ enthusiasm, accompanying them all the way, which in return yields new talents for the next generation.
Next to this, Belgium has an excellent sports infrastructure and a lot of technical expertise, so that young players are coached in the most ideal circumstances. Many Belgian sports companies are also active in Doha, offering world class services, expertise and materials in the run-up to the World Cup in Qatar.
Q: How proud is Belgium of its national team?
A: At a moment like this, with Belgium expected to give a good show in Russia, the ‘Red Devils fever’ is reaching new heights. People are dressing up in Red Devils outfits, including caps, tridents and the emblematic Fellaini haircut wig. Public screening is organised everywhere and people are extremely enthusiastic about their squad. It’s a moment that makes us come together as Belgians and we support our country unreservedly.
Belgians are modest people, but this time nobody can deny the intrinsic quality and pure class of the Belgian team. All Belgian players are active in the most demanding competitions in Europe: England, Spain, Germany and Italy. Names as Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Thibault Courtois or Kevin Debruyne are already widely known.
As Belgium, we are very proud of the team that is a perfect example of the Belgian multicultural society. The parents of some of our top players came to Belgium from Mali, Congo, Indonesia, Portugal, Martinique or Morocco, offering their talents to our country. It’s a source of great pride for us that their sons are showcasing Belgium to the world as an inclusive and dynamic country.
In a way our team epitomises what we stand for as a nation. We are open and outward looking, bridge-builders by nature. These characteristics translate into our diplomacy, which is multilateral to the core. Last week Belgium, together with Germany, was chosen for the European group to serve on the UN Security Council in 2019-2020, a challenge that we will take on eagerly.
Last but not least, the World Cup reminds us that Belgium yields considerable soft power, through its achievements in culture, science, and now sports. In our latest tourism promotion campaign, we describe ourselves as a uniquely phenomenal country. This is certainly true for our national team: not only do they stand out for their individual talents, but they’re also very typical Belgians in the sense that they’re excellent team players.
The team has grown a lot over the last years and I’m sure they will be a force to be reckoned with.
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