|Major Honours||Olympic Gold Medal (1)|
Belgium’s national soccer team, known as the “Red Devils”, has gone through a period of unprecedented success, hovering around and occupying the world number one spot in recent years.
While their recent success is rightly celebrated, the long history of the team prior to the modern era should not be ignored.
Belgium played their first international in 1904 and have appeared in 13 World Cup tournaments. Their third-place finish in the 2018 edition in Russia was their best finish ever.
Early history and Olympic gold
Soccer became Belgium's favourite sporting pastime in the late 19th Century, initially introduced on the grounds of Joshephites College of Mell by Irish student Cyril B. Morrogh. It overtook sports such as rugby in the national conscience and eventually culminated in the formation of the first Belgian football division in 1896.
On 1 May 1904, Belgium played their first official match against France on home soil, finishing 3-3 but leaving the Evence Copee trophy unclaimed (named after the Belgian aristocrat who organised the fixture). Later that month, their football associations were both among the seven founding members of FIFA.
In 1920, they won the gold medal in their first ever Olympic football tournament. The Red Devils' run to the final, however, was smattered with luck. They were awarded progression to the second round after Poland did not appear due to the ongoing war with the Soviet Union, along with their final being won by default because of protestations from the Czechoslovakia team. The Czechs walked off the pitch in anger because of the officiating of the English referees, who initially sent off their left-back Karol Steiner before allowing Henri Larnoe's controversial second goal.
"World Champions of friendlies"
Belgium's close relationship with the French international team as founding members of FIFA continued as both set sail on the SS Conte Verde to the first ever World Cup in Uruguay in 1930. The Belgians couldn't pick up a win on their South American expedition however, in a trend that continued into the second post-war World Cup in 1954.
The Red Devils did manage to pick up upset victories outside of these tournaments; beating the then-reigning champions of the world West Germany in 1954, the great Hungarian side of 1956 that included the likes of Ferenc Puskas and Nandor Hidegkuti, and another World Cup holder in Brazil in 1963. They were thus mockingly labelled "world champion of friendlies".
Belgium missed out on the 1958, 1962 and 1966 World Cup tournaments nevertheless, and also did not participate in the European Championships until 1972 in what were 20 years to forget on the international stage for the nation.
Success in the World Cup and Euros
Belgium enjoyed one of their most successful eras in the 1970s and 1980s. Under the guidance of Raymond Goethals, they achieved their first victories in the World Cup and European Championships in 1970 and 1972 respectively.
Goethals led Belgium to a 3-0 win over El Salvador at the 1970 World Cup, but the Red Devils were still eliminated from Group 1, which also included hosts Mexico and the Soviet Union.
In 1972, Belgium finished third at the European Championships, knocking out defending champions Italy in the quarter-finals and beating Hungary to claim third place.
Belgium missed out in the 1974 and 1978 World Cups as well as Euro 1976, the former in gut-wrenching fashion. They became the only side to not qualify for the World Cup without ever conceding a goal, finishing behind the Netherlands on goal difference.
The Red Devils, however, embarked on an astonishing run to the final of Euro 1980, with a win over Spain sandwiched in between draws to England and Italy prior to a defeat at the hands of West Germany.
They were back in action on the global stage for the 1982 World Cup, but were eliminated at the second group stage. They subsequently qualified for every World Cup tournament for the following 20 years, progressing into the second round in all but one (1998) in what was becoming considered their first 'Golden Generation'.
In 1984, Belgium were eliminated from the group stage of the European Championships.
However, in 1986, they enjoyed one of their best ever World Cup tournaments, reaching the semi-finals by beating Iraq, the Soviet Union and Spain along the way. They lost 2-0 to Argentina in the semi-finals and lost 4-2 to France in the third place play-off. Jan Ceulemans and Enzo Scifo played starring roles for the Red Devils in midfield.
Failure to qualify for Euro 1988 signalled the beginning of another largely barren spell for Belgium on the continental stage at least.
Belgium and the 1990s
Belgium were famously eliminated from the round of 16 at the 1990 World Cup by a volley from England's David Platt in extra time. Despite matching fellow group-stage opponents the Netherlands and Saudi Arabia, the Red Devils scraped through as one of the best third placed teams in 1994 World Cup. Notwithstanding that, the same fate was condemned in the last 16, this time at the hands of defending champions Germany in a 3-2 loss.
In the 1998 tournament in France, they were the only team in the tournament alongside France and Italy to not lose a game, with the three draws against the Netherlands, Mexico and South Korea but was not enough to face elimination in the group stage.
Meanwhile, they failed to qualify for any European Championships throughout the 1990s. The decade brought to a close a generally positive chapter in the nation's footballing history, with the retirements of the likes of Ceulemans, Scifo and Luc Nilis and even some silverware in the 1999 Kirin Cup which was shared with Peru. However, another golden generation of players would soon emerge.
Belgium's Golden Generation
A new generation brimming with tremendous talent began to break through in Belgium's youth system towards the end of the 2000s, players who would gradually turn them into a major force on the international stage over the course of the next decade.
After their round of 16 elimination at the 2002 World Cup and group stage exit two years before at Euro 2000, Belgium failed to qualify for the World Cups in 2006 or 2010, and the nation went through four head coaches in the space of a decade.
Belgium took a strong squad to the 2014 edition in Brazil, and was the first time the likes of Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku took to the international stage. The Red Devils recorded one-goal victories over Algeria, Russia and South Korea in the group stages and then knocked the USA out 2-1 after extra time in the round of 16. In the quarter-finals, the Red Devils were beaten by a single Gonzalo Higuain finish and exited the tournament in Brazil with a 1-0 loss to Argentina.
Belgium rose to the top of the FIFA world rankings in November 2015, but were eliminated from the quarter-finals of Euro 2016 in what was only their fifth time participating in the intercontinental competition. The Belgians reached the quarter-finals with relative ease, only losing once before an inspired comeback from Wales would make soccer history, but ultimately eliminate Belgium from the tournament.
Hazard starred for Belgium in their run to the 2018 World Cup semi-finals in Russia under the management of former Wigan Athletic and Everton boss Roberto Martinez. Along the way, they beat Brazil 2-1 in the quarter-finals, ending their hopes of a sixth World Cup title.
However, Belgium were beaten by France in the semi-finals. Nevertheless, the Red Devils secured their best ever World Cup finish with a 2-0 third-place play-off win over England. Goals came from Thomas Meunier and Hazard.
Thibaut Courtois won the Best Goalkeeper of the Tournament award, but Belgium have yet to capitalise on their era of success with a major trophy.
Jan Vertonghen is Belgium's record appearance-maker with 120 caps, having made his debut for his country in 2007. Other current stars Axel Witsel (107), Hazard (106), and Toby Alderweireld (100) are not far behind him.
Romelu Lukaku is Belgium's top goalscorer of all-time with 57 goals (correct as of March 2021). At club level, he is most widely known for his spells at Manchester United and Inter Milan (where he currently plays), as well as loan stints at West Brom and Everton while on the books of Chelsea. Former club team-mate Hazard trails him with 32 goals (correct as of March 2021).
Kevin De Bruyne, Vincent Kompany, and Enzo Scifo are among other Belgian icons, the former of which will be hoping to play a part in guiding this second golden generation of players to the country's first piece of major silverware.
Paul Van Himst, who played as a forward mainly for Anderlecht, was Belgian footballing royalty during the 20th Century. His time in the national team as a player lasted 14 years, from 1960 to 1974. He netted 30 times for the Red Devils in 81 appearances and was part of the side which finished third at the 1972 European Championships.
Belgium's biggest rivals
Belgium have fierce rivalries with the Netherlands and France due to being in close geographical proximity to these nations and the political connections between them.
The rivalry with the Netherlands is known as 'The Low Countries Derby', as both nations are well known for being relatively flat geographically. The sides held a biannual tradition of contests that lasted for just under 60 years (1905-1964, excluding out of peacetime situations). The Dutch come out on top in more than 125 overall match-ups, recording 55 victories compared to Belgium's 41.
Belgium's fixture with France has been dubbed 'Le Match Sympathique' ('The Friendly Match'). The aforementioned first meeting of the latter pairing was in fact the first official football match between independent countries on the continent of Europe. France have met no other side more often on the international stage than their neighbours.
The Belgium national team struggled somewhat to get supporters on board in the early 2000s, even being branded as 'mortally ill' by local journalist Bennie Leuyten. But during the managerial reign of Marc Wilmots (2012-2016), they were won over as the team performed impressively and reached their first tournament in over a decade in 2014.
In 2012, local fan groups merged into one "1895" Red Devils supporters' group. The name was chosen in honour of the year in which the Royal Belgian Football Association (RBFA) was founded. By 2013, there were estimates that the group boasted over 24,000 members.