Belgium, The Red Devils

Early History

The official date of football arriving in Belgium is 26 October 1863, which is when an Irish student named Cyril B. Morrogh brought a leather ball into the Josephites College of Melle. Soon enough, football replaced rugby as the nation’s most popular football sport. In 1895, ten clubs specializing in football, cricket, cycling, and athletics founded the UBSSA, a national athletics sports union. Next year, the UBSSA organized the first Belgian football league.

All these new developments led to a rise of interest in national football. In 1900, Beerschot AC president Jorge Diaz organized a series of matches that saw Belgium face off against various opponents. Their first challenger was the Netherlands B-team, with Belgium winning each of the four matches with them. However, FIFA doesn’t recognize these bouts as Belgium fielded some English players. In their first official match, Belgium drew with France 3-3.

From 1905 onwards, Belgium and the Netherlands would meet up and play on a biannual basis. This bout became known as the Low Countries derby, and it played a big part in developing a traditional rivalry. After one of these matches, a Dutch reporter noted that the Belgian players “worked as devils,” which led to the team becoming known as the Red Devils.

Fun Facts

  • Belgium’s first official tournament appearance was at the 1920 Olympics in which they won the gold medal
Belgium’s gold medal team of 1920
  • Belgium has an international rivalry with the Netherlands known as the “Low Countries Derby”
Low Countries Derby started in 1905
  • Belgium’s current top goal scorer is Romelu Lukaku
Romelu Lukaku

The Van Himst Era

The early ‘70s saw the team take a few strides forward. After managing to qualify for the 1970 World Cup, they won their first match in the competition by defeating El Salvador 3-0. However, they lost the following two games, failing to qualify for the knockout stages. Two years later, they went a step further by making it to the final stage of the Euro 1972. Following a close loss to West Germany in the semi-final, Belgium defeated Hungary 2-1 in the third-place playoff. During this period, Belgium was coached by the legendary Raymond Goethals. Among his many contributions to the national team, Goethals popularized the use of the offside trap, which later became one of the team’s key strengths. An even bigger piece of the puzzle proved to be the emergence of Paul Van Himst. During his rich career in the national team, Van Himst became Belgium’s joint-top goalscorer with 30 goals in 81 appearances.

Paul Van Himst

The glory days

By the late ‘70s, Belgium was ready to move up to the big leagues. Under the leadership of coach Guy Thys, they proved their mettle by coming in first in a tough Euro 1980 group that included Italy, England, and Spain. In the final match, they again lost to West Germany on an 88’ minute goal from Horst Hrubesch. This generation of players — led by Jean-Marie Pfaff, Eric Gerets, and Jan Ceulemans — would later become known as the “golden generation.”

Their first taste of World Cup success arrived in 1982, when they defeated defending champions Argentina 1-0, topping their group in the process. The second stage was too big of a hurdle to overcome, though, and they lost both to Poland and the Soviet Union. Still, it was clear that the main thing that was holding the team back was a simple lack of experience. Most pundits agreed that this generation was too talented not to compete for major trophies.

The 1986 World Cup didn’t start particularly well for Belgium, as they barely escaped their group as the third best-placed team behind Mexico and Paraguay. They made up for it in the knockout stages by outlasting the Soviet Union in extra time and defeating Spain on penalties. The Maradona-led Argentina in the semi-final was a step too far, though. Despite putting up decent resistance, they were unable to stop Maradona from eliminating them with a brace.