In 1930, Belgium played in the first-ever match at a FIFA World Cup, which saw them suffer an unflattering 3-0 loss against the United States. A single-goal loss against Paraguay followed. Belgium were eliminated without finding the back of the net once. That’s how Belgium’s World Cup history started. Let’s see where it will go in the future.
World Cup History of Belgium
World Champions of the Friendlies
The following two World Cups didn’t bring anything for Belgium either, except losses against France and Nazi Germany. Having withdrawn in qualification for the 1950 tournament, Belgium made a return in Switzerland four years later. A notable highlight was their spectacular 4-4 draw against England, but the 4-1 loss to Italy sent the Red Devils home.
Belgium’s would then have a World Cup hiatus that lasted 16 years. Despite this, the Belgians did experience some noteworthy highlights during these dark times, like beating the defending world champions West Germany mere months after they won the title in 1954. They also triumphed over Hungary’s golden team two years later and defeated reigning world champions Brazil 5-1 in 1963, feats that gave Belgium the mocking nickname of “World Champion of the Friendlies.”
Historic Wins for Belgium
In 1970, Belgium didn’t aim to remain “World Champion of the Friendlies”, but actual world champions, as they finally returned to football’s greatest stage in Mexico. Here, the Belgians finally won a World Cup match – 3-0 against El Salvador. It was a historic win. Still, the cup was a disappointment as they had to exit after losing their subsequent matches against the Soviet Union and the hosts, Mexico.
After a hiatus, Belgium’s success continued as they made a return to the World Cup in 1982. Until now, the only team the Red Devils had defeated at the World Cup was El Salvador. Now they were gonna face defending champions Argentina in the opening match. Against the odds, Belgium were victorious thanks to a goal by Erwin Vandenbergh, but above all it was a good team effort.
In the next match, Belgium again defeated El Salvador, who had lost 10-1 against Hungary. Now the Hungarians stood against Belgium on the final matchday. The match finished 1-1, which was enough for the Belgians to top the group and advance to the second group stage, where their tournament ended following losses against Poland and the Soviet Union.
First Golden Generation
Next came the 1986 World Cup, again held in Mexico, and again Belgium lost against the Mexicans. To reach the tournament, Belgium narrowly eclipsed their arch-rivals the Netherlands in a high-stake play-off. Goals from François Vercauteren and Georges Grün made sure the Red Devils advanced on away goals. A form of poetic justice, as the Dutch had narrowly denied the Belgians a place at the 1974 World Cup.
Belgium also found justice at this World Cup by beating Iraq and drawing with Paraguay to clinch a spot in the knockout stage against the Soviet Union, who had a squad of mostly Ukrainian players and topped their group easily. In 1970, the Soviets defeated Belgium 4-1. In 1982, they won by a single goal. Their 1986 match ended up being one of the games of the century.
Game of the Century
Igor Belanov gave the Soviets the lead in the 27th minute with a great strike. Enzo Scifo equalized early in the second half, only for Belanov to score once again in the 70th minute. However, only seven minutes passed until Jan Ceulemans made it 2-2. The remainder of normal time failed to produce a winner. During extra time, Belgium made it both 3-2 and 4-2 thanks to goals from Stephane Demol and Nico Claesen, while Belanov secured his hattrick through a penalty.
Belgium was in the final eight, where Ceulemans scored again against Spain. La Roja did find a late penalty, though, and extra time couldn’t split them with Belgium either. The Red Devils proved a bit too potent in the penalty shootout, reaching a World Cup semi-final for the first time ever.
They did lose it, but to have participated in one of the best matches of Diego Maradona’s career must still feel like an honour in some ways, even though it of course felt devastating in the moment. Belgium’s bronze match against France was also spectacular, but the Red Devils narrowly lost 4-2 to Le Bleus after extra time.
Read more: Don Diego Maradona: A Hero
Four More Consecutive World Cups
Belgium earned a spot at Italia ‘90, where they were pretty successful yet again, earning wins against South Korea and Uruguay, albeit losing to Spain. It was enough to secure a spot in the Round of 16, where England won thanks to a brilliant David Platt volley just a couple of minutes before the match would head to penalties.
The 1994 World Cup was a similar story for Belgium. After enjoying a solid group stage where they won against Morocco and rivals the Netherlands, the Red Devils suffered a devastating 3-2 loss in the knockout stage. Once again, it was West Germany. A silver lining was the performance of Michel Preud’homme, who was named the World Cup’s best goalkeeper.
Despite qualifying for France ‘98, Belgium failed to replicate their previous success at this championship. Three draws weren’t enough to secure a spot in the last 16, despite going undefeated.
Belgium’s impressive World Cup streak continued, qualifying for their sixth consecutive tournament in 2002. They enjoyed an average competition that saw them once again be eliminated in the round of 16, having advanced from a group that definitely was on the easy side.
Second Golden Generation
This marked the end of Belgium’s streak, and the Red Devils didn’t qualify for a single major tournament until the 2014 World Cup. But when they did, they came there as one of the contenders, or at least one of the primary dark horses. By now, Belgium’s second golden generation had started emerging, with several players playing for top clubs across Europe’s elite leagues.
In fairness, Belgium’s group was easy, but they had earned that by being highly seeded thanks to their excellent performances in qualification. The Red Devils topped the group by winning every match and defeated a resilient United States side with a heroic Tim Howard between the sticks in the round of 16 after extra time.
Unfortunately, Argentina’s Gonzalo Higuain ended Belgium’s run in the quarter-finals, but the Belgians still made it that far at a World Cup for the first time since 1986.
It’s actually incredible how seemingly fast the rise of Belgium was. From failing to qualify for a European Championship to deservedly reaching the quarter-finals of a World Cup and even arriving at the tournament as somewhat of a contender despite no real recent pedigree.
First World Cup Medal
Belgium’s golden generation showed no signs of decline in 2018 World Cup qualifying where they won all matches but one. The Belgians once again arrived at a major tournament as one of the top contenders, a label they proved to be warranted by convincingly winning all of their group matches.
— Belgian Red Devils (@BelRedDevils) June 23, 2022
However, Belgium wasn’t as convincing in the round of 16 against Japan. At least for the first 67 minutes. Then The Red Devils put in another gear, scoring three goals in 25 minutes to secure a spot in their second consecutive World Cup quarter-final – the first time to do so successively. Just like four years earlier, it was a South American team, but not Argentina. It was Brazil.
Belgium obtained quite a fortunate lead through an own goal, but there was nothing lucky about the second one. Kevin de Bruyne’s brilliant shot made it 2-0. Renato Augusto’s consolation goal in the 76th minute never became more than just that. Belgium was in the semi-finals for the first time in 32 years, where they would face their ‘big brother’ to the south, France, who notably defeated them in the bronze match of 1986.
It was an end-to-end game that could’ve gone either way and was ultimately decided by a Samuel Umtiti header. Another disappointing loss for Belgium, who would’ve had good chances to win the title against Croatia in the final. Still, the Red Devils finished the tournament on a high note, winning their first medal at a World Cup by defeating England for the second time that summer.
Belgium, World Champions at Last?
Belgium do have some young prospects with bright futures, and they seem to have become more of a talent factory rather than a country that has a golden generation every 30 to 40 years. Still, with their best players ageing, it’s only a matter of time before they start declining. Qatar 2022 is likely the last chance for Belgium’s second golden generation to win the World Cup.
Only time will tell what happens later this year. If Belgium plays to their full potential, they can definitely win the title. However, they’ve struggled to do so across the most recent tournaments in the latter stage matches that really matter. This trend must be broken if Belgium wants to win the trophy.
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