Belgium’s loss to Italy means they face Ireland in desperate need of a response. Francois Fourneau has the view from Red Devils fans who can’t wait to mix with their Irish counterparts, and though confident they can win, hold some fear of the Boys in Green.
Belgium has been away from the European Championships for 12 years and it is a lot for a country that attended six World Cups in a row. After years of disappointments from our talented youngsters, 2013 was when we finally qualified for another tournament. Brazil was great. Or was it? People say we didn’t prove much because our group was easy: Russia, Algeria, and Korea. We got to the quarter finals, but still our players felt gutted to be out of the competition. The welcoming party got cancelled under an order of the national coach himself.
So the draw for Euro 2016 was exciting for Belgians. We hoped for bigger tests and, boy, we couldn’t get better ones. Italy, Ireland, Sweden. Almost identical to our group during Euro 2000 (Italy, Sweden, Turkey).
Having said that, we have top players who are capable of winning this tournament. It was tempting to say that we could beat anyone but the group and schedule are tricky. The first game, Belgium – Italy has not gone according to plan. Now we will have to get a win to try to reach the round of 16. That second game against the Irish; now that is a perfect trap.
The Belgium fans aren’t very savvy when it comes to other league football. They may know a bit about huge teams (Germany, France, etc.) but most won’t know a thing about Ireland. But we are quite excited to meet a country known for its amazing support. 2012 is a great memory, especially that last game, down 0-4 against Spain and singing proudly. I think most Belgians long for such a national pride and unity. Our country is complicated; in constant turmoil. The national team is a breath of fresh air, the only time we all get together, north, south, Flemish, Walloons, etc.
We tend to think of Ireland as a rough team, very strong mentally and physically. An opponent we should be very careful with. But we’re definitely stronger. We do have world class players in every spot. I think the only way Ireland could win is to start strong, score in the first 10 minutes, when we’re the most vulnerable, then do some very serious defending.
“After terrorist attacks on our soil, who else but the Irish will help us lighten the mood?”
As for the Belgian squad, lots of people love Eden Hazard. Actually, the Belgian FA has made deals with tons of partners and ad agencies. Lots of campaigns are in place, the training sessions are public, the players are visiting schools, etc. So basically, any Belgian now knows every single player. They’re all popular.
In my opinion, the best players, those you just can’t replace, are Kevin De Bruyne and Radja Nainggolan. Any midfield should fear Nainggolan, any defence should fear De Bruyne. The attackers Romelu Lukaku, Batshuayi and Origi are very young but becoming more and more confident, smart and professional.
As for the loss of Kompany, he has never played friendly games, has missed most of our big games (wins against Holland, France, Italy, Euro 2016 qualifiers) so we are used to playing without him. He’s a strong support, a kind of a big brother-father figure but I think it is not entirely a bad thing that he will miss the tournament. The other defenders (who are in their late twenties-early thirties) will now, more than ever, have to get their hands dirty and keep things in order. Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, who had a great season with Tottenham, they have both improved a lot. Three of our four defenders (Vermaelen, Vertonghen, Alderweireld) have captained Ajax of Amsterdam. They are solid.
The Belgian fans are enthusiastic about the national team. We aren’t proud of our country most of the time, not ashamed either. You will just have a hard time finding a Belgian who knows the words to the national anthem, for instance. Also, as with our politicians, we are often unorganised. The Belgian Football Federation failed at giving the proper fans enough tickets to the games. Black-market tickets to Belgium-Ireland now cost a fortune. We don’t even speak the same language so chanting for our team feels weird.
In short, we won’t out-sing the Irish, no chance. If we don’t score fast and we start doubting ourselves, we’re in trouble. I honestly feel Ireland has a chance of reaching first or second place. I am truly glad to meet Ireland at the Euros. It’s going be tough but it’s going be great. In these dark times, after terrorist attacks on our soil, the finals will be a great way to enjoy ourselves, and who else but the Irish will help us lighten the mood? I can’t wait to meet you guys. May the best team win.
Francois Forneau is a Belgian graphic designer who loves travelling and international football and has always enjoyed mixing both passions.