This article is part of the Guardian’s Euro 2020 Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the 24 countries who qualified. theguardian.com is running previews from two countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 11 June.
Ten wins out of 10. Forty goals scored, three conceded. Qualification for the Euros was a pretty easy ride for Belgium, in a group with Russia and Scotland as the main opponents. Tactics haven’t changed much over the past few years. It’s easy to predict Belgium’s lineup when everybody is fit. In the 26-man squad, there are barely any newcomers.
Belgium will play the same 3-4-3 system they have been using for the past five years under Roberto Martínez with one more defensive-minded wing-back on the right and an attacking midfielder in that role on the left.
The main recent talking point has been Eden Hazard’s form at Real Madrid. He has been struggling with injuries and hasn’t played for Belgium since November 2019. Martínez said: “I am convinced we will see the best Eden Hazard at the Euros.
“Eden has always been performing well for us and he plays an important role – he never disappoints. I have seen a hungry Eden over the last few weeks. He’s smiling again. He hasn’t played a lot, but that can be an advantage too. He will join the squad as a new, young player.”
In central midfield, Martínez will have decisions to make. Axel Witsel is recovering after he tore an achilles tendon in January. It will be a close call to be fit in time, but Belgium will wait until the last moment before replacing him. “I can’t guarantee that I’ll be fit to play six or seven games at the Euros,” he said. “But I have been fighting likea warrior to be fit in time.”
Witsel is considered an important player by Martínez. A unique profile that adds balance to the team and is crucial in the buildup and protection of an ageing defence. Toby Alderweireld (32), Jan Vertonghen (34) and Thomas Vermaelen (35) are near the end of their careers and aren’t the most mobile trio.
If Witsel doesn’t recover in time, Leander Dendoncker or Youri Tielemans will take his place in the starting lineup. Dendoncker’s passing game is less accomplished than Witsel’s, but the Wolves midfielder adds different qualities. Kevin De Bruyne, another player with a recent injury scare but expected to be able to play, and Tielemans like a risky pass and to dictate the tempo, but the Leicester man says they can play together: “It will just depend on the tasks that the manager will give us.”
Staying for five years with Belgium wasn’t his initial plan, but Martínez has loved life in Waterloo with his family, close to the battlefield where Napoleon came unstuck. He’s been promoted to become the technical director of the FA, working on the long term. The Spaniard has encouraged his players to take their coaching badges and is still very positive. “Belgium can be a little less modest in my eyes,” he said. “It is almost a shame if you say here that you are good, and that you want to do everything you can to win.”
Belgium doesn’t really have one poster boy. If there was an icon, it would be Hazard. At one point he was the most used player in advertising, but most commercial contracts have gone to the national team as a whole, being the No 1 in the world rankings since 2018makes them a stronger brand than any one individual. The Belgian FA has multiple contracts with sponsors that can use pictures of the players. Their faces are all over chocolate bars, beer cans and soft drinks. The nation’s biggest beer factory will even produce special red beer for the Euros and a hamburger chain will have their Red Devil burgers.
Thankful for a year’s delay
Jérémy Doku made his debut for Belgium in last September and made a big move to Rennes soon afterwards. As he had played 28 games for Anderlecht before last summer and didn’t have any experience in the continental competitions, he probably wouldn’t have made the squad. Now he’ll be the joker thanks to his pace and dribbling. He has had a decent season at Rennes and now has some Champions League experience.
Belgium’s probable lineup. If De Bruyne is not fit Youri Tielemans is likely to take his place.
What the fans sing
Freed from Desire by Gala was the song for the World Cup campaign in 2018. It is played in the King Baudouin Stadium when Belgium score – so it’s been played a lot. The Italian singer even performed the song for fans after Belgium qualified for the Euros. Eden Hazard stepped on the podium and handed her a shirt.
Gala proudly sports her shirt as she thanks fanboy Eden Hazard. Photograph: Vincent Van Doornick/Isosport/MB Media/Getty Images
Another song more commonly used by fans is “Waar is da feesje? (Where is the party?) It was a teacher who dreamed it up, as a motivational quote to his students who would reply with: “Hier is da feesje!” (Here is the party). Later, he started screaming it at KV Mechelen games. It became so popular the Pitaboys turned it into a record.
What the fans say
Binnen! Inside. (When Belgium have scored a goal).
Tous ensemble! All together now.
Stop met breien! Stop knitting (When Belgium are playing too much sideways)
Ou est Fellaini? If only we had Fellaini.
Toby Alderweireld pledged computers and tablets to hospitals so elderly people and sick could stay in touch with their families.
Kristof Terreur writes for Het Laatste Nieuws.
Follow him on Twitter @HLNinEngeland.
Read a profile of Jérémy Doku here.
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