Belgium, which began October ranked third in the world behind Argentina and Germany, which both lost during the past week, guaranteed it would take over FIFA’s top spot by dominating Israel during a 3-1 Euro qualifying win in Brussels on Tuesday. The margin is slim, as a loss in that same game could’ve seen the Red Devils fall as far as fifth in November’s rankings, and would’ve meant finishing second in Group B behind Wales. Nonetheless, on Saturday Belgium qualified for its first Euro since 2000, on Tuesday the Red Devils clinched the top spot in their group, and come November, they will be ranked first in all the world.
Not bad, just ask the Netherlands.
Why ‘the world’s best’ chocolate should be taken with a grain of salt. Let’s start by pointing out the obvious. While they matter, to call FIFA’s rankings slightly imperfect would be to suggest that governing body is only marginally corrupt, but as opposed to FIFA itself, these rankings remain transparent and objective, even as they now suggest the world’s best team is one that failed to qualify for five straight major tournaments after the 2002 World Cup.
Still, for any nation to become the top ranked team in the world’s most popular sport is a monumental achievement, and to do so after being ranked 66th on the planet only six years ago, as Belgium was in 2009, is staggering. And while few outside FIFA would claim Belgium is currently the world’s best soccer team, that doesn’t mean it won’t soon be.
What makes Belgium one of Euro 2016’s favorites? Answer: talent, young talent and more talent.
Even if it fails to win, if Belgium builds momentum at France 2016, the Red Devils should be a force to be reckoned with in Russia three years from now, as none of the country’s constellation of stars is over 30.
If Spain’s David De Gea, 24, isn’t the best young goalkeeper in the world, then the 6-foot-6 Thibaut Courtois is. Currently recovering from a knee injury, the 23-year-old Courtois has already started a World Cup quarterfinal, a Champions League final with Atletico Madrid, a club he helped win a La Liga title, and last year he won an EPL title during his first season at Chelsea.
Zenit St. Petersburg paid Benfica $46 million in 2012 just for the right to have midfielder Axel Witsel, who is 26, toil in the relative obscurity of Russia’s Premier League. Still just 22, the massive Romelu Lukaku already has seven goals in 10 appearances as Everton’s striker this season. Vincent Kompany, a 29-year-old captain of both club and country, looks to be one of the world’s best defenders once more, after a dip in form at Manchester City last season.
Belgium’s rapid return to relevance coincides with a period when many of Europe’s traditional powers are scuffling, and even Germany, the rational observer’s consensus No. 1, has labored since demonstrating its primacy in Brazil.
It’s hard to put a finger on Germany’s malaise, perhaps Die Mannschaft is just waiting for the bell to ring, but the facts are the world champions didn’t guarantee their Euro 2016 berth until their last qualifier, Ireland took four points in two games off them, and they also lost a pair of home friendlies against their most recent common opponents with Belgium, Argentina and the United States. The same U.S. team that was publicly tarred and feathered in the Rose Bowl last Saturday, while somehow losing by only one goal in overtime to Mexico, a USA team that evaded a lopsided scoreline in Brazil solely by virtue of Tim Howard’s heroics, while somehow losing by only one goal in overtime to Belgium.
Germany won when it mattered, beating Argentina in the World Cup final, Belgium bowed out to that same squad in the 2014 quarterfinals. Since then, each of these nations seized road wins in friendlies against France 2016 contenders. Germany conquered Spain, 1-0, last November, and Belgium beat Les Bleus, 4-3, in June at the Stade de France just outside Paris, where every nation will hope to be playing early next July, when the Euro 2016 final will be played at that same venue.
Two terrifying Red Devils. Kevin De Bruyne was Germany’s Player of the Year at VfL Wolfsburg last season; Eden Hazard was similarly honored in England while winning an EPL crown at Chelsea. No other team at Euro 2016 will feature even one reigning MVP from one of Europe’s top four leagues, as the top players in Italy and Spain were Argentines, Carlos Tevez at Juventus and Lionel Messi at Barcelona (Spain’s Liga de Futbol Profesional awards have not been announced, but the treble-winning Pulga has already been named the Best Player in Europe by UEFA).
Hazard, after a spectacular 2014-15 season, has gotten off to a sluggish start this year, one mirroring Chelsea's early morose, but the seventh most valuable player in the world (per transfermarkt.com), looked razor sharp on Tuesday. De Bruyne’s creative genius was on full display in Germany last season, when he tied the Bundesliga’s assist record, with 20. Since transferring to Man City last month De Bruyne already has three goals and two assists in four EPL games, and while Hazard holds the higher profile, it is De Bruyne who has shone brightest for the national team, and he’s clearly been Belgium’s best player during qualifying.
Both are still just 24 years old, Hazard is an elite dribbler and the more dynamic athlete, while De Bruyne’s vision and delivery are similarly special, both love to roll the ball at opponents with sleepy changes of pace while sizing up their next victims. Occasionally they’ve played a tug of war over Belgium’s creative authorship, often from opposite wings. On Tuesday, mutual respect saw them frequenting the same areas and sharing the ball, which led to the whole team operating smoothly. Both scored against Israel, with De Bruyne burying his second free kick in as many games, after assisting Dries Mertens’ opening goal.
Rivals should be praying this state of grace between these two hellaciously talented Red Devils is short lived.
Belgium hasn’t yet proven it deserves its lofty ranking, but anyone still suggesting a country with this much star power should be labeled a dark horse isn’t very bright. What then to make of 46-year-old Marc Wilmot, Belgium’s coach since 2012, who said the following after reaching the top five last year?
"People used to make fun of us. No one is laughing any more. But don't think I'm blind enough to believe that our team are really in the top five in the world. Some people expect us to win the [European] title in 2016. I can't help wondering if they've gone mad."
Mad indeed, but one can only wonder if he’s changed his tune now that (the ever scrupulous) FIFA has sent Belgium to the top of the charts?