Belgium overcame teammates' love triangle to build World Cup title contender
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BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil – Belgium, the next obstacle standing in the way of the United States' World Cup campaign, claims to be one of the closest-knit squads in the tournament.
So much so, that even an alleged love triangle involving two teammates and one woman was not enough to cause serious disruption to a team that has grown into one of Europe's best.
In April last year, Belgian magazine Story reported that Caroline Lijnen, the girlfriend of midfielder Kevin De Bruyne, had an affair with Thibault Courtois, De Bruyne's national team colleague.
With De Bruyne then playing for Werder Bremen, the magazine claimed that Lijnen had become disenchanted with life in Germany and had moved to Madrid where she "cheated on Kevin" with Courtois, according to the magazine's source.
The British tabloid press jumped on the story, which was made all the more juicy by the fact that the ownership rights to both players were held by English Premier League team Chelsea.
Back in 2010, Chelsea teammates and former friends John Terry and Wayne Bridge were involved in a tabloid scandal when a newspaper claimed Terry had become involved with Vanessa Perroncel, Bridge's former girlfriend and mother of his young son.
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But unlike some national teams, which would close ranks and possibly allow resentment to fester, Belgium did things a little differently.
For one, head coach Marc Wilmots got involved, holding discussions with the players and talking things through to assure himself there would be no lingering resentment. Then, a team press officer effectively admitted the story was true, saying there were "issues" between De Bruyne and Courtois but insisted they had been resolved.
"We don't deny that there have been private problems between Thibault Coutois and Kevin De Bruyne," said Stefan Van Loock, a Belgian Football Association spokesperson. "But I've talked to both of them and they both confirm the case is closed for them. They have finished the quarrel. The guys talk to each other and they even make jokes again.
"It's true the national team manager has talked to both of them about the case. But it has never had any impact on the Belgian team. It's a shame this case has gone public."
Certainly, there seems to have been no obvious animosity since. The players celebrated together on the field after several of Belgium's wins during World Cup qualifying, a campaign in which De Bruyne starred with four goals and four assists. Courtois has blossomed into one of the finest young goalkeepers in Europe, helping Atletico Madrid win Spain's La Liga and nearly the Champions League last season.
Both were among five players named by Coach Wilmots as the core of a team many feel is primed for a big run at this World Cup. The Belgians are the favorites when they face the U.S. in the round of 16 on Tuesday.
"We are very familiar with this very strong team," U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said Friday. "They are one of the secret favorites in this World Cup because of the individual players they have."
Wilmots has built his squad cleverly around competitiveness and cohesion. He urges his players to go at it in training, unlike most World Cup squads' practice sessions where intrasquad games are often held at a slower pace to reduce the risk of injuries.
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De Bruyne limped out of a scrimmage earlier in the tournament, while Eden Hazard and Kevin Mirallas pushed and shoved each other at a training session, according to reports. But Wilmots welcomed it all, likening his group to brothers who are close enough to challenge each other.
That same fierce spirit, and closeness, will be something the U.S. has to overcome at Salvador's Arena Fonte Nova on Tuesday. And the De Bruyne-Courtois saga, while hardly conventional, is an example of the man-management skills of a coach who has pieced together an outstanding team.