Four years ago, after Belgium had just eliminated the United States in the Round of 16 of the World Cup in Brazil, finally getting its goals in extra time, manager Marc Wilmots couldn’t hide his contentment. Belgium had reached its objective, Wilmots cheerfully declaring in the postgame press conference.
The Belgians had made the quarterfinals.
Never mind that his impossibly gifted and deep golden generation was surely capable of more. Wilmots was satisfied. The Red Devils were summarily bounced in their next game, losing 1-0 to Argentina.
If every country has a national trait, Belgium’s is probably modesty. There are all sorts of reasons for that, from the Calvinist culture of the Low Countries to the fact that Belgium was made up of spare scraps from three other nations – the Netherlands, France and Germany – and was dubbed an “aberration of history” by Charles de Gaulle.
For this Belgium team to ever make good on its potential, the great hurdle to overcome wasn’t physical. It was psychological.
The team’s defensive stalwart Vincent Kompany readily admitted this.
“It used to be in Belgian culture, and I think everyone would agree with me, we would feel defeated even before a game like this,” he told the press before the game.
Manager Roberto Martinez seemed to spend most of his time before the game trying to convince his players that they could play with the record five-time world champions. And in truth, position for position, Brazil was really only superior at right- and left-back.
“There is something special in this squad, no doubt about it,” Martinez said to his own players as much as the press. “We can’t wait [for Brazil]. I feel we are as ready as we can be. Over the last two years we have been working towards this moment.”
“They were born to play in a match like this,” Martinez added.
Something seemed to have changed, or so Kompany argued. “All these players in our team, who play at clubs around the world, now believe 100 percent we can beat Brazil,” he said. “Whether that’s realistic, I don’t know. Brazil are an incredible team, but there is not one day I go to bed thinking ‘What if we lose?'”
Still, doubt remained. Kompany said there was no point comparing the two sides one-on-one, because by his own admittance, “We have no chance.”
Again, you could argue with that. So it was hard to say if Kompany was being candid or playing mind games. He announced that the pressure would be on Brazil and Belgium would have to play as a tight-knit collective to stand a chance.
And sure enough, Belgium beat Brazil 2-1 in Kazan on Friday. It was just the second time the Red Devils have made it that far in a World Cup, matching their feat from 1986 – when they last had a self-styled golden generation.
It wasn’t pretty. Brazil dominated, spending the entire game on the front foot as the Belgians absorbed pressure and sought to counter-attack. Three big Brazil chances in the early going, including one that kissed the post, didn’t yield a goal though. While Kompany headed a corner kick on, it deflected into Brazil’s net off Fernandinho’s shoulder for an own-goal.
Then, after half an hour, on a Belgian breakaway engineered by the transcendent Romelu Lukaku, Kevin de Bruyne lashed a shot past Alisson to double the score.
From there on, Brazil laid siege to Belgium’s box, taking 26 shots in all to Belgium’s eight. And the Belgians got lucky here and there. Kompany quite clearly fouled Gabriel Jesus in the box with the ball still in play, but even upon VAR consultation, no penalty was given. And after Renato Augusto narrowed the score with a header on a delicate ball by Philippe Coutinho in the 76th minute, Belgium kept its cool, bailing out water and never quite sinking.
An enormous save by Thibaut Courtois in injury time sealed it, capping a night in which he’d stood on his head. And Belgium followed up its near-miraculous late comeback against Japan in the Round of 16 – turning an 0-2 deficit in the 69th minute into a 3-2 victory – with another knockout stage win.
Before the game, Kompany had said something else that was noteworthy, stating that it was time for his golden generation to finally break through at a major international tournament. “The fact that the game against Brazil is defining for our generation is for sure,” he said. “It’s not like we’ve been failing up to now but there is a level above, which we need to achieve, which can be done by a game like the one we are playing against Brazil.”
The one Belgium has won against Brazil.
Belgium, at last, has arrived at the World Cup. And now it faces mighty France for a chance to make its deepest run ever.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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