Belgium's €400m Red Devils men on a mission
Published 13/06/2016 | 02:30
For a nation that has never won a major football tournament Belgium's Red Devils carry an onerous weight of expectation into Euro 16.
One of their most gifted former players, Enzo Scifo, who played in four World Cup finals including the 1986 semi-final, expects a Belgium-France final and he is not alone.
That's what happens when a squad is the most expensively assembled in the tournament and is the continent's leading side in the FIFA rankings and second only to Argentina.
Coach Marc Wilmots, a former international team-mate of Scifo, has been trying to rein in expectation. A semi-final place, he says, would be "something special", "an exceptional achievement", and "a great result".
Wilmots, whose managerial record is mixed, has been criticised for putting substance ahead of style with a widespread belief that the team should be more attractive given the flair at his disposal. He, though, insists "discipline and efficiency" get results, not "champagne football".
So, while Wilmots will find room for Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne in his line-up to take on Italy in Lyon tonight, they are expected to reluctantly flank Romelu Lukaku with Marouane Fellaini (above) in the No 10 role both covet.
This quartet make up a substantial share of the €400m the Belgian squad cost their current clubs, comfortably more than their three rivals in Group E combined, and €165m more than England's squad which itself is the third most expensive.
Such is the talent at his disposal, Wilmots has omitted Tottenham's Nacer Chadli and Everton's Kevin Mirallas, but he would dearly have loved to have been able to include yet another Premier League player - the injured Vincent Kompany, whose absence exposes Belgium at full-back.
Such has been the surfeit of central defensive talent at his disposal, Wilmots has deployed Tottenham pairing Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld on the flanks.
With Kompany out Alderweireld is likely to move into the centre alongside Thomas Vermaelen, the former Arsenal player now with (but rarely playing for) Barcelona.
Vertonghen will stay on the left, with either Laurent Ciman, who plays for Montreal Impact in MLS, or Jason Denayer, on loan to Galatasaray from Manchester City, likely to play at right-back.
Wilmots has spent much of his adult life either playing for or coaching the national team.
Between the two roles, he was a politician, serving in the Belgian senate.
This interlude was not a success, but his political nous has been instrumental in unifying a squad previously split in line with the divisions in Belgian society, both between Flemish and Walloon, and the indigenous and immigrant communities.
Like their hosts, Belgium have more than football on their minds. The ISIS-inspired atrocities were organised in Brussels and featured Belgian nationals.
Kompany --a key figure in squad-bonding and who has joined the team between media duties - has spoken eloquently of the need for the national team to be a symbol of unity and integration.
Manchester City's captain hails from Uccle, the same suburb in which Abdelhamid Abaaoud, suspected ringleader of the Paris attacks, went to school.
"When I was a kid in my neighbourhood there was nobody that supported Belgium," he said. "It was impossible and unthinkable because nobody could relate to the national team.
"Today, I walk the streets in Brussels and young kids of Arab origins, Congolese origins, French origin, almost everyone is happy to wear the Belgium colours or most of them at least. I think that's the reason why I'm proud to play for Belgium."
The current squad includes players who have heritage in Congo (Kompany, Lukaku, Benteke), Morocco (Fellaini ), Mali (Moussa Dembele), Iberia (Yannick Ferreira Carrasco), Indonesia (Radja Nainggolan), Kenya (Divock Origi), Martinique (Axel Witsel) and elsewhere.
Few of them play in the domestic Jupiler League. Most, though, are Belgian-born and all are united in a desire to go one step further than Guy Thys's 1980 vintage when Wilfred van Moer, Jan Ceulemans and Frankie van der Elst took Belgium into a final where they narrowly lost to Germany.
Independent News Service