It was a lovely day to sit here in the magnificent Estadio do Maracana. A warm, sunny Sunday afternoon here in Rio. Not too hot.
The match wasn’t too hot either.
A lifeless, lacklustre 1-0 match between Belgium and Russia, ended, to the relief of neutrals, when Belgium substitute Divock Origi scored the winner two minutes from the end. Belgium goes into the Round of 16.
But there were “boos” and derisive whistles aimed at both teams. Some booing came from frustrated Belgian supporters, most of it from Brazilians feeling shortchanged, disappointed by the tedium on display.
Belgium came into this World Cup heavily favoured to go far – even win it, the proverbial dark-horse team. A young team of boundless talent that qualified with ease, scoring goals with casual skill, playing with panache.
They do progress here, but not with flair, instead by grinding out a dull 1-0 victory and before that a nervous, disjointed 2-1 win over Algeria. Their strikers, especially Romelu Lukaku, look listless. The allegedly attacking midfielder Eden Hazard seems sleepy, uncommitted. The attacking, linking teamwork isn’t there; this is not Belgium as advertised.
What happened? I don’t think it takes the skill, the “little grey cells” of fictional Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, created by Agatha Christie, to figure it out.
In October of 2008 I was in Brussels to see Belgium play Spain a World Cup qualifying match. A full, expectant crowd of 50,000 came to the Roi Baudouin Stadium on a wet Wednesday night to watch. Expectant of some glory because, although Spain had been crowned champions of Europe that summer, there was, locally, a positive feeling about the Belgium team and rumours abroad that Belgium was on the cusp of greatness.
On the field that night were Thomas Vermaelen, Vincent Kompany, Daniel Van Buyten, Jan Vertonghen and the lanky midfielder Marouane Fellaini. All five played for Belgium at the Maracana on Sunday.
After the loss to Spain in 2008 I talked to several local sports reporters. They were disappointed but unsurprised. What about this great young group of players, I asked in a general way. The answers amounted to one, shrugging summation – it’s the same old story, I was told the talented youngsters were “selfish and arrogant.” It’s all about their club careers, the money, the endorsements, the agents and the girlfriends. They fought with the Belgium Football Association. They fought with each other. One reporter said, “They think their talent is for them, not for Belgium.”
That problem appeared to be solved in the last two years. There was a change of leadership in the Belgium F.A. In 2012, Marc Wilmots, a legendary former striker for the Belgium and a natural leader, took over as national team manger. Belgium breezed into this World Cup, its first tournament of any kind since 2002.
But here’s the thing – in recent months the old problem of ego-and-atitude seems to have returned to haunt this team.
Kevin Mirallas talked sarcastically about young Adnan Januzaj’s being selected for the Belgium national team a few months back. “It’s good for Belgium because he is a very good player,” Mirallas said on TV. “Now, like a lot of people have said, he may not deserve to come to Brazil with us because he does not know the group and he has not played much for Manchester United in recent months.”
Wilmots responded by, in essence, telling Mirallas to shut up, via the media. “That’s not his job. For this, he should be silent. The rules are, you have to talk about yourself, but not the others.”
Eden Hazard, who was one of those young ego-maniacs a few years back – when he was subbed off in a match in 2011 he famously walked straight out of the stadium, in a huff – has been criticized in the press and by former Belgium manager Georges Leekens as under-performing for Belgium while excelling for his club Chelsea. “Not pulling his weight for his country,” was the rough translation. Add these incidents together and you get indications that the talent-filled, success-resistant, unit-resistant Belgium is back.
Two wins but ugly wins here. Watching, you can tell how this mystery is solved – Belgium is less a team than it is a clutch of talents. Given the level of skill and talent – no wonder it’s boo to that.