EDEN HAZARD IS tumbling along the left border of the penalty box, like an unfurling carpet. Seconds earlier, he was upright and hunting down the ball deep into the Moscow field, deep into Tunisia’s territory, once man and object had been released into space. But when a protruding knee (of Syam Ben Youssef, a Tunisian defender) crunched into his thigh on the edge of the box, Hazard tripped, fell and began to roll. The Belgium captain’s body flipped four times. On the first turn, the camera caught him grimacing. On the next, Hazard’s eyes searched for the referee. When his body stopped rolling, he rose with a smile. The referee had pointed at the spot.
Hazard is a threat anywhere on a football field—in the hole behind the striker or out wide on the flanks. But it was here, at the penalty spot, 12 yards away from the goalkeeper, that his genius was first discovered. Some 20 odd years ago, in the rural Belgian town of Braine-le-Comte—30 km southwest of Brussels—a small-time football club manager was made aware of a trespasser practising penalty kicks on his main field. The ground had recently been reseeded and the furious manager, Pascal Delmoitiez, barged out of the clubhouse to give the intruder an earful. Half way up the field, Delmoitiez noticed that the intruder was a child, no more than three feet tall, and without shoes. Yet, the little boy was whipping in perfect penalties, barefeet and from the full distance of 12 yards away, into the top corner of the net. Amazed, Delmoitiez got closer, but when the boy saw the approaching adult he jumped the fence and ran into a house just beyond the ground. Delmoitiez followed, knocked on the door and introduced himself to Thierry and Carine Hazard. He told them that their son was the most talented footballer he’d seen in person and would very much like for the boy to train at his club. The Hazards agreed. Eden was five years old.
In Moscow, the 27-year-old Hazard prepared to take his team’s penalty. Not unlike that barefoot child, he stood barely two metres away from the dead ball. Hazard believes in poise, not power; in magic, not momentum. If he was nervous, he didn’t show it. In six World Cup matches that he had played across two editions, including Belgium’s opening match of Russia 18 against Panama (the worst side in this tournament), Hazard—the face of his country’s footballing renaissance—hadn’t scored a goal. Two steps later, he rolled the ball along the ground, slowly but precisely, to the right of Tunisia’s Farouk Ben Mustapha, and into the net. All of five minutes into his seventh World Cup game, Hazard’s drought had ended. It wouldn’t be his only goal of the day.
Six minutes into the second half, Hazard sprang after a long pass hoofed up by teammate Toby Alderweireld. The ball wasn’t even in his control when Hazard weaved in and out of two Tunisian defenders and chipped his second past the charging goalie. In any other team, the captain’s brace—his first two World Cup goals, no less—would’ve been the story of the day. But Belgium isn’t any other team. They are the Diables Rouges, or the Red Devils, with striker Romelu Lukaku being the nightmare-in-chief for his opponents. In the first half against Tunisia, Lukaku had scored two goals as well—a long-range spank and a poacher’s feather touch—just as he had against Panama in the second half of Belgium’s opening game. Four shots on target, four goals.
In just two matches, Belgium have scored eight goals—two more than their entire World Cup campaign in 2014, where they went all the way to the quarterfinals—making Hazard’s side the most entertaining team to watch in the group stage. And quite easily the team to beat as the tournament proceeds to the knockout stage. All this, without much scoresheet assistance from Kevin de Bruyne, the third prong in the Devils’ trident. Apart from setting up Lukaku’s first goal against Panama, De Bruyne’s name doesn’t feature anywhere on Belgium’s goals-and-assists records at this World Cup. But don’t be fooled. Without his vision to interpret play, often many moves ahead, and without his skill that seemingly folds time and unfolds space, Belgium wouldn’t be the threat they are today.
Lukaku, De Bruyne and Hazard—25, 26 and 27, respectively— playing together, in the prime of their football lives. This was perhaps the plan Chelsea FC had for them when the three Belgians found a home at Stamford Bridge early in their careers. But mismanagement and lack of vision ensured only Hazard remained; Lukaku found his way to Manchester United (via West Bromwich Albion and Everton) and De Bruyne ended up in Manchester City (via Werder Bremen and Wolfsburg). The dream has finally come to fruition where it really all started—for Belgium, not Chelsea.
Lukaku was asked if he felt this red devils had a better squad than the other red devils he plays for, Manchester United. He replied, “Yeah, much better”
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After Belgium’s win against Tunisia, Lukaku attended the presser, where he was asked if he felt this Red Devils had a better squad than the other Red Devils he plays for, Manchester United. Now even the best countries in football can’t boast of being better than Europe’s top clubs, given the time, money and resource spent in putting together the latter. And in the off chance that a nation is indeed better than a club a certain player represents, he is not going to admit it. Footballers, better than most, know which side their bread is buttered. But when Lukaku looked sheepish on hearing the question, the journalist repeated herself. So he scratched his chin, smiled and said, “Yeah, much better.”
These are telltale signs of a strong campaign: a happy, winning dressing room palate-cleansing the bitterness of the past. Before this World Cup began, Lukaku indulged in a widely shared first-person piece for The Players’ Tribune, where he wrote: ‘When things were going well, I was reading newspapers articles and they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker. When things weren’t going well, they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker of Congolese descent.’ The papers back in Belgium are, understandably, all praise now. But Lukaku, the Belgian striker, has moved on to better and grander worries: score more goals, win more matches and perhaps, just perhaps, go on to lift the golden trophy. This dream, a dream that no one in Belgium really dreamed until recently, is now a reality.
TRADITIONALLY, FOOTBALL IN Belgium was nurtured in pleintjes, or squares. Empty parking lots, dry swimming pools, abandoned basketball courts—any space that resembled the dimensions of a football field. These pleintjes were a big attraction to those who lived on the fringes of Belgian society; immigrants mostly, from Congo and Turkey and Morocco and Portugal. Marginalised and ignored otherwise, the squares allowed the immigrants to freely express themselves, a stomping ground for drugs, beat music and football. In the documentary De Pleintjes, a tribute to Antwerp football, Adnan Arhoun, a youth worker, relives his days of being a square-player of some repute. In the process of telling his story, he drops some big names.
“I was in the same square-football team as Thomas Vermaelen, Jan Vertonghen, Tom De Mul and we were all friends. We used to play here,” Arhoun says, standing in a basketball court in Bisthovenplein, a suburb of Antwerp. (Vermaelen and Vertonghen are part of the Belgium squad at this World Cup). “There were many well-known footballers, who now play at high levels and they will also tell you I used to give them the panna.” A panna is to nutmeg your opponent, or kick the ball between his legs and retrieve it from the other side. “There is nothing better than ridiculing a fellow footballer,” says Arhoun. “Mousa Dembélé was often victim to my panna. He remembers.” Dembélé (also in the Belgium squad in Russia) does, appearing in the documentary at a parking lot and displaying his square-football skills.
“Nowadays, the kids have PlayStations and computers. We only had this, street football,” Dembélé says. “We, who played voetbal (football) in the pleintjes, are more confident of our skills.” The other breeding ground for Belgian football was on barren patches of land in the inner-cities, the most notorious of them being Droixhe (a suburb of Liège). Droixhe alone produced midfielder Alex Witsel, winger Zakaria Bakkali and striker Christian Benteke. These boys, though, from the frills of Belgian society, were predisposed with the hunger to make football a vehicle, to break out of their obscurity. On the other hand, Belgium’s middle-class majority— the Dutch-speaking Flemish—whose children played the game on the manicured lawns of school fields and academies, stagnated. Until Michel Sablon showed up.
No story on Belgium’s voetbalrevolutie can be complete without a mention of Sablon, the revolution’s guerrilla leader. At the turn of the century, Sablon was in charge of hosting the European Championships in Belgium. Football- wise, Euro 2000 was a disaster—with Belgium becoming the first host-nation to crash out in the first round (they scored two goals in the first four minutes of their opening match and nothing after that). Still, big money was made for hosting the Euro, which Sablon promptly channelled towards youth development as soon as he became Belgian football’s technical director a year later. The rewards were reaped by today’s Belgium team, almost all of whom were in middle-school then.
To cut to the chase, Sablon invested in integrating football with the school’s curriculum. Also, a large chunk of the money was spent to extensively study the efficiency of these school programmes (the big finding was the old system focussed less on development and more on winning) and a larger portion to learn from the French and Dutch systems. Finally, Belgium’s government was roped in to fund the construction of several special schools, where the best footballers would be transferred to keep their focus on one day turning pro, while still earning a degree.
The result? Thibaut Courtois, Belgium and Chelsea goalkeeper. Dries Mertens, Belgium and Napoli striker. Nacer Chadli, Belgium and West Brom midfielder, to name a few of the country’s household names today. And of course, De Bruyne and Lukaku. There’re grainy videos of the two of them as school-kids, staring into hand-held cameras and professing their dreams of playing in the English Premier League. A six-year old De Bruyne says: “My favourite footballer is Michael Owen and my favourite club is Liverpool. One day I would like to play for them.” A slightly older Lukaku, in another video, says: “If one day in my life I cry, it will be the day I play for Chelsea. I love Chelsea.”
The Premier League clubs loved them right back, plucking them from the teats of Belgian academies in search of their next Vincent Kompany. Kompany was the first Belgian to taste prolonged success in England’s top division. Drafted into Manchester City’s ranks soon after he played in the Belgium under-23 side that reached the semi-final of the Beijing Olympics, Kompany grew into a superstar at his club. First as a defender and then as a captain. In 2012, he led City to their first EPL title in 44 years, a feat that won him the Player of the Season award. Three years later, that award was won by another Belgian, Chelsea’s Hazard.
Sablon’s youth system never did nourish Belgian club football, what with the talent constantly siphoned off in its nascence by their richer European neighbours. But the parasitic EPL did provide one short-term benefit for Belgium: the current squad has peaked, in skill and temperament, just in time for Russia. Today, as many as 23 Belgians play professionally in the toughest league in the world, many of whom are in Belgium’s World Cup squad, handled, incidentally, by a former Premier League manager (Roberto Martinez, Belgium coach) and an all-time EPL legend (Thierry Henry, assistant coach). When these men—men who are taught to loathe finishing second—converge, Belgium is left with a room full of world beaters, ready to bring home sport’s most important trophy.