There has never been as much hype about soccer in the United States as there is right now. The USMNT managed to survive the so-called “Group of Death” at the 2014 FIFA World Cup and move on to the knockout round, where they will face Belgium on Tuesday. And this has sports fans across the country pretty pumped.
Does that mean American sports fans are suddenly soccer experts? Hardly. But just as you don’t have to be a football expert to enjoy the Super Bowl, you don’t have to be a soccer expert to enjoy the World Cup.
That being said, knowing a little bit about what’s going on certainly helps. So today, to get you ready for tomorrow’s big game, we’re going to tell you everything you need to know about Belgium.
Take a look and send the link to your friends. Then you can all go to a bar together, watch the game, and impress the hipster soccer snobs with your knowledge.
We might as well start off with the basics, right? The Belgian national football team was founded in 1904 and is overseen by the Royal Belgian Football Association—abbreviated as URBSFA in French, KVBV in Dutch. From the outset, the team wore red jerseys, but it wasn’t until 1906 that a journalist named Pierre Walckiers called them “the red devils” after a string of impressive victories. The nickname stuck, and ever since then the Belgian team has been called “The Red Devils.”
Of course, the “red” part is redundant, since devils are usually assumed to be red unless otherwise noted (e.g. the Duke Blue Devils). But who am I to criticize the country that invented waffles, French fries, and Belgian tripels?
9. The Red Devils
The Belgian national team is not one of the tradition European soccer powerhouses. They had a pretty good run in the 1980s and 1990s that included six straight World Cup appearances, including a fourth place finish in 1986. And while that is certainly better than anything the USMNT has done, it’s nothing Sweden, South Korea, and Bulgaria haven’t done. So that doesn’t exactly qualify them for elite status.
More importantly, it’s been all downhill since that fourth-place finish. They finished 11th in 1990, 11th in 1994, 19th in 1998, and 14th in 2002. And they didn’t even qualify for the World Cup in 2006 and 2010, nor did they qualify for the Euro in 2004, 2008, or 2012.
The point? Don’t let their national colors confuse you: this aint no Germany.
Of course, this point does come with a big, all-caps BUT…
8. Belgian Soccer History: Not That Illustrious
Belgium’s soccer pedigree may not be that great, but in 2004 the Royal Belgian Football Association adopted a revolutionary new youth development system cooked up by former coach Michel Sablon (pictured). The crux of the new system was twofold: (1) get every youth coach in Belgium to institute a 3-4-3 system (i.e., three defenders, four midfielder, three attackers) to develop creativity and dribbling skills , and (2) emphasize development over results by doing away with team and player rankings.
This new system has worked better than anybody could have imagined…
7. The New Golden Generation
The average age of Belgian squad at the 2014 FIFA World Cup is 25.66, which was the second youngest roster in the tournament…until Ghana got eliminated. Now they are the youngest. And while that means there is probably some inexperience to be exploited, it also means they are a highly talented and potentially explosive team who could outlast older teams in an overtime situation.
Oh, and the youngest player on the team? That would be 19-year-old Divock Origi, who came on as a sub against Russia and become the youngest player to score in the World Cup since some guy named Lionel Messi in 2006. Look out for this kid.
6. Second youngest team at 2014 WC
That’s right. A whopping 11 of Belgium’s 23 players at the 2014 World Cup play in the English Premier League. And not just any teams, either. All 11 play for clubs that finished in the top seven this year—Man City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, Man U, Everton, and Tottenham.
And just in case you’re not too familiar with the various soccer leagues of the world, here’s an analogy that might help you make sense of things: the English Premier League is to Major League Soccer what the NFL is to Division II NCAA football.
5. 11 of 23 Play in EPL
Belgium’s most talented and dangerous offensive weapon is midfielder Eden Hazard. This kid is just 23 years old, but he was named the Young Player of the Year in the EPL last year after scoring 17 goals for Chelsea. He doesn’t have a goal yet at the 2014 FIFA World Cup, but that makes him all the scarier—at some point he’s going to break out. And if that breakout comes on Tuesday, well, God help the USMNT.
4. Eden Hazard Is a Wizard
Technically Thibault Courtois is under contract with Chelsea, but for the last three seasons he’s been on loan to Atletico Madrid.
How’s he do this year in Spain? Pretty good I guess—if you consider beating out Real Madrid and Barcelona for the league title and holding Lionel Messi scoreless in five games “good.” And you should, because it is.
Seriously, Courtrois can steal games. If he is on, the U.S. could be toast.
3. Goalie Thibault Courtois: Also a Wizard
Hazard and Courtois aren’t the only studs Belgium will throw at the USMNT. Kevin De Bruyne, 23, can be lethal on the attack, and he sparked Belgium’s win over Algeria. Romelu Lukaku, 21, has scored 32 goals over the past two seasons for Everton, drawing comparisons to Didier Drogba (though possibly because he is also black). And the team’s oldest player, Daniel van Buyn, is a longtime Bayern Munich veteran who used to play for U.S. coach Klinsmann.
Oh, and the guy with the afro? That’s Marouane Fellaini. The British press labeled him a bust this year after transferring to Manchester United for $47 million, but don’t be fooled—he’s good. And vicious.
2. The Other Guys
I know I just talked up the Belgian team a lot. And they are dangerous. But they are also very beatable for three reasons.
One: Belgium is pretty banged up. Central defender and team captain Vincent Kompany (pictured) probably won’t play against the U.S., and even if he does he’ll be dealing with muscle fatigue. That’s a huge break for the Americans. Add to that the absence of defender and vice captain Thomas Vermaelen and defender Anthony Vanden Borre, and the Belgian defense is not looking so great.
Two: Belgium is young, inexperienced, and hasn’t realized their potential. This gives a less talented USMNT an opening.
Three: the USMNT isn’t that less talented. Sure, they don’t have much world class talent beyond Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, and Tim Howard. But they aren’t a bunch of scrubs, either. This is a competent team with a competent coach that is capable of beating good teams.
Why not Belgium?
1. But Belgium Is Beatable
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