Football has long been prominent in the Country of Belgium but Belgium has longer struggled with asserting themselves as a force in the sport. The date Belgian football started is said to be October 26, 1863. A young Irish student by the name of Cyril Bernard Morrogh brought a round ball to a field near his University College van de paters Jozefieten in Ghent. Being a Josephite University, a progressive sect that were supportive of the ideals of physical health, this new game quickly caught on and spread through the country. By 1895 the Royal Belgian Football Association (also referred to as the KBVB (Dutch), URBSFA (French), and the KBFV (German)) was founded. In 1900 Belgium hosted an international tournament, however, it was not recognized as their national team’s first competition because some of the players on the Belgian team were British. It was not until May of 1904 that Belgium National Team, known colloquially as the Red Devils, played its first recognized international match, a 3-3 draw versus France. This took place 20 days before the creation of FIFA, with Belgium being one of the original members.
Belgium’s fiercest rival on the pitch is their neighbor, Holland. Having played in 125 matches known as the low countries derby, is the third most played derby in international football. The Netherlands have a slight edge in the overall record of the derby, 55 wins to Belgium’s 41. This derby has come about from the history and geographical proximity of the two nations.
The Belgian Pro League, known as the Jupiler League, started out with 7 teams in 1895. As of now, 16 teams compete in the Jupiler League, in which the bottom two clubs get relegated to the Belgian Second Division and are replaced with the two best Second Division teams. The most successful clubs include R.F.C. Anderlecht with 33 league wins and Club Brugge KV with 13. No Belgian club has ever won with UEFA Champions league, a second place finish by Club Brugge in 1978 being the best ever by a Belgian outfit. Similarly, Anderlecht’s 1983 UEFA Europa Cup win is the only such win for a Belgian side. The best results by Belgian clubs internationally coincide with the period considered to be the first golden age of Belgian football: 1980-2002.
Belgium’s first major international success took place at the 1920 Olympic games, coincidentally held in Antwerp, Belgium. The Belgian’s won all three of their games en route to winning the gold medal, albeit in controversial fashion. The Belgian’s did not have to play in their first game due to a no-show by the Polish team. In the second round the Red Devils beat the Spanish by way of a hat trick from striker Robert Coppee. In the semi-final round Belgium drew their fiercest rival, the Netherlands.
A strong showing from the home team dispatched the Dutch side in a convincing 3-0 route. This lead to a matchup between Belgium and Czechoslovakia for the gold medal. The Belgian striker, Coppee, scored his fourth and final goal of the tournament to open up scoring in the 6th minute by way of penalty. The Belgians expanded their lead to 2 in the 30th minute thanks to striker Henri Larnoe. When the 39th minute arrived controversy ensued. Following a red card and subsequent ejection of Czechoslovak player Karel Steiner, the Czechoslovakian team stormed off the field in protest of what they saw as biased officiating. This bizarre turn of events led to Belgium receiving Gold and Spain getting the silver as Czechoslovakia was disqualified from the competition.
Belgium struggled to find success as a national team for decades. The Red Devils earned the nickname the “world champions of friendlies” from Pele following the team’s impressive friendly wins such as their 5-1 domination of Pele’s Brazilian side. Despite this, they failed to qualify for most major tournaments in the 50s and 60s. The national side found their first major success since 1920 at the 1972 European championships. The third place finish was by far the country’s best finish. They lost in the semi-final round to the future champion West German side, but still managed to end on a winning note by beating Hungary in the third place play-off match. While this result did not lead to immediate success, it was a preview of things to come in the 80s. Guy Thys, the Belgian team manager from 1976 until 1991 is the most successful manager Belgium has had. Belgium again found success at the European championships, finishing second behind West Germany in 1980. This time, however, their success at the Euros lead directly to more success. From 1982-2002, Belgium qualified for every World Cup, including a 4th place finish in 1986. The ’86 world cup team struggled in the group stage, finishing third in group B, but did enough to move on to the knockout stage. Belgium’s first game was against the Soviet Union.
The game tied 2-2 at the end of regulation, leading to an exciting overtime finish. Belgium was able to go up 4-2 but with nine minutes left, the Soviet Igor Belanov completed his hat trick and brought the Soviets within one. Belgium was able to move onto the next round when they held off a frantic Soviet side trying desperately to equalize the match at 4 in the last nine minutes. In the quarter final Belgium again found itself in extra time, this time the 90 minutes finished with Spain and Belgium tied 1-1. With no goals being scored in the added time, Belgium won in Penalty kicks 5-4. The magical run ended after this. Belgium drew Maradona’s Argentine squad. Maradona netted a brace leading Argentina to the finals with a 2-0 victory. This left Belgium in the third place play-off vs France which saw Les Tricolores triumph over their smaller neighbors 4-2. This fourth place finish is still Belgium’s best result to date in the World Cup. By 2002 all the players from this team had retired, leaving the Red Devils to struggle in the first decade of the 21st century.
By Nick Salzman, Sam Skinner, and Will Feldman
How to Cite this Page: “Team History” Written by Nick Salzman, Will Feldman, and Sam Skinner (2016), European Cup 2016 Guide, Soccer Politics Blog, Duke University, http://sites.duke.edu/wcwp/tournament-guides/european-cup-2016-guide/belgium/team-history/(accessed on (date)).