On the sixth of December 2011, Belgium finally ended a record-breaking run of five hundred and forty-one days without a formal government when new Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo was sworn in by King Albert II in Brussels. Following the general election of June 2011, the fragmented political landscape was represented by eleven different political parties taking seats in the Chamber of Representatives, but with none of them having more than twenty per cent of them. Attempts to form a coalition of government proved fruitless until the credit ratings agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded Belgium’s credit rating to AA from AA+, making it more expensive for the country to borrow, and it was this that finally provided enough of a jolt to the country’s political system to bring it together.
There is a certain irony in the fact that the country that is the home of the city regarded as the de facto capital of Europe, Brussels, should not even have been able to find unity within itself for a period of over a year and a half. In this, the crisis of the Belgian government perhaps mirrors a broader crisis of confidence in the European project. Yet it was only a little more than a decade ago that the concept of European Union was at the height of it popularity, with one of the common political narratives of the beginning of the new millennium being the brave new world of twenty-first century politics as pan-Europeanism and the continent waiting – some nervously, others with greater confidence – for the launch of the single European currency, which was scheduled for the beginning of 2002.
In keeping with the spirit of the age, UEFA used the 2000 European Championships as an opportunity to experiment with something that had never been tried before in the history of the tournament – allowing a joint hosting between two countries. The tournament had grown from four teams to eight in 1980, and then doubled again sixteen years later when the tournament travelled to England in 1996. Its arrival in Belgium and the Netherlands in 2000 was a signal that the days of smaller European countries being able to host tournaments on their own could be a thing of the past, but that in this race for expansion the smaller nations hadn’t necessarily been forgotten.
The Dutch came into the tournament as the favourites to win it. After tearing themselves to pieces four years earlier in England, a spectacular performance at the World Cup finals in France two years later had seen the team get to within a penalty shoot-out of getting to the final itself before being beaten by Brazil. A tournament on home ground, with some of the other grander names of European football such as England, Spain and Germany in an apparent state of decline, was widely regarded as an excellent opportunity for the Netherlands to repeat their success of 1988, when the team travelled to West Germany and came back with the trophy itself.
There was less optimism, however, in the other host nations’ camp. Belgium entered the new millennium in a state of flux, in decline since a run of excellent performances in major tournaments throughout the early to mid 1980s. Yet the Belgian national team has been around since the explosion of national teams at the start of the twentieth century, winning a bronze medal with the University of Brussels team that entered on the country’s behalf at the Olympic Games in France in 1900, and then a controversial gold medal in 1920 when hosting the tournament in Antwerp sixteen years later after a win against Czechoslovakia that was protested against by the losing team, who walked off the pitch after thirty-nine minutes in protest at the refereeing and the provocative atmosphere when already two goals down. Belgium also went on to appear in the first three finals of the World Cup, although they performed without great distinction and lost all four of the matches that they played in these three tournaments.
The years after the end of the Second World War proved to be even more fallow for the national team. They qualified for the 1954 World Cup and were knocked out in the first round without winning a game, before finally breaking their World Cup finals duck with a win against El Salvador in Mexico 1970, although this was followed up with another two defeats and a first round elimination. Two years later, however, the team reached the semi-finals of and hosted the European Championships, losing to West Germany before winning a third place play-off against Hungary. This, however, would be something of a flash in the pan and the side would fail to qualify for its next two World Cup finals.
In an otherwise undistinguished 1980 European Championships, however, the team finally came of age. They knocked the host nation out of the group stages on goals scored, following a 2-1 win against Spain, before only losing the final against West Germany thanks to a goal two minutes from time scored by Horst Hrubesch. Two years later, they kicked off their return to the World Cup finals with a win against the holders, Argentina, and winning their group before being knocked out in the Second Round by Poland and the USSR. At the 1984 European Championship finals, they again started with a win, this time against Yugoslavia, before losing their next two matches and being eliminated.
It would be the 1986 World Cup finals, however, at which Belgium really came into their own. With a team orchestrated by the likes of Franky Vercauteren, Enzo Scifo, Jan Ceulemans and Nico Claesen, they scrambled through the group stages one of the third placed teams to get through, before beating the USSR by four goals to three and then Spain on a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-finals before finally succumbing to Argentina and the genius of Diego Maradona. Four years later they were only beaten with a goal scored in the last minute of extra-time by England, and at the USA in 1994, despite losing to Saudi Arabia in the group stages of the tournament, made the Second Round of the tournament before only narrowly losing to Germany in the Second Round of the competition. Four years later came another First Round elimination, though, although a degree of pride was maintained by exiting the tournament unbeaten, having drawn all three of their group matches against the Netherlands, South Korea and and Mexico.
It was clear by this time that the team of Scifo, Ceulemans and Claesen was very much of the past, and the pre-tournament attitude of resignation in Belgium was tangible, with coach Robert Wasiege saying that, “We know that no one is giving us a chance – sometimes when I listen to the people it is as though we are not even involved.” Wasiege took the job just months before the beginning of the tournament, having been a journeyman coach in Belgium for much of the previous two decades, but his success with the team in the build-up to the tournament – a run which included away wins against Norway and Italy – and what was considered a group that was far from insurmountable was such that the Belgium team entered the tournament with confidence building, despite scepticism in the press.
Their opening match against Sweden was punctuated by three goals in seven minutes either side of half-time. Having attacked for most of the first half, Bart Goor gave them the lead just before half-time, and a second goal, lashed into the top corner from an angle by Emile Mpenza in the opening minute of the second half but there was a sign of a problem to come after fifty-three minutes when goalkeeper Fillip de Wilde trod on the ball from a backpass, lost his footing and allowed Johan Mjallby to pull a goal back for Sweden. De Wilde atoned for his earlier mistakes with saves from Ljungberg and Mjallby, but a Belgian side that had started their opening game and their next opponents, Italy, would prove considerably tougher oppostion, with goals from Francesco Totti and Stefano Fiore giving Italy a 2-0 win in Brussels in their second match to set up a tense closing round of group matches for the host side.
The mathematics of this final round of group matches was simple. Belgium were playing Turkey in Brussels, and a draw would be enough to see them through to the quarter-finals of the competition. In stoppage time at the end of the first half and with the score still goalless, however, calamity struck again for de Wilde and his defence. A long, looping ball through the middle seemed like a comfortable one for the defence to deal with, but de Wilde hesitated before coming to claim the loose ball and Turkey’s Hakan Sükür out-jumped him to head in and give Turkey the lead. Belgium, who were starting Luc Nilis up front for the first time in the tournament had to come out and attack the Turkish team but this left huge gaps at the back that were exploited to their fullest with twenty minutes to play when Suat broke on the right and crossed for Sükür to double their lead and knock Belgium out of the tournament. Goalkeeper de Wilde’s disastrous tournament, meanwhile, was topped off with a red card with seven minutes of the game left to play.
Belgian disappointment at an early exit from the competition was tempered a little when rivals and co-hosts the Netherlands stumbled in the semi-finals of the competition, missing two penalty kicks in normal time and then a further two in a penalty shoot-out against Italy in a match in Rotterdam that was representative of an extremely entertaining tournament, one which is remembered with a considerable amount of fondness even now. For Belgium, however, Euro 2000 would mark the beginning of the decline of the national football team. They would qualify for the 2002 World Cup finals – their sixth successive qualification for the finals of this competition – and knock Russia out in the group stages of the competition, but the Second Round would bring defeat at the hands of Brazil in Kobe.
Since then, however, the decline of the Belgian team has been dramatic, with bankruptcies becoming commonplace in the country’s Jupiler League and this torpor mirroring itself in the performances of the national team, which saw them drop as low as seventy-one in FIFAs rankings by the summer of 2007. As the country regroups politically through necessity, though, there are also signs that the future could be brightening for the national team, as well. The current generation of Belgian players contains such names as Simon Mignolet, Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen, Marouane Fellaini, Eden Hazard and Moussa Dembélé, and there is considerable positivity about the teams chances of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil.
The future of both Belgian and European politics hang in the balance in 2012. Belgium has always been two countries effectively thrown together for political purposes, and the divisions that run through Belgian society were shown up in the starkest light by the country’s five hundred and forty-one days without a government. The European project, meanwhile, has become increasingly discredited by recent financial crises in Southern Europe, although the complete collapse of the single currency still remains only a distant possibility. As the European economy contracts, though, European football continues to hold its position of pre-eminence. The UEFA Champions League final now challenges as the most-viewed sporting event in the world, and the European Championships will be expanded again, this time from sixteen to twenty-four nations, in time for the 2016 tournament in France. The nearly men of Belgium may well find themselves back in with a chance of making these finals as well, if the current generation of players is anything to go by.
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