With the World Cup 2014 qualifying campaign well underway, Belgium is attracting a lot of attention thanks to the emergence of a new generation of highly promising and expensively traded young players. The Belgians have had a second-rate national team since the mid-1990s, but with talent of the calibre of Eden Hazard, Axel Witsel, Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen, Moussa Dembélé and Romelu Lukaku available to trainer George Leekens, supporters can now realistically dream of a return to the nation’s successful 70s and 80s heyday.
For the latest in our regular Eleven series, BTLM takes a look through the best of the country’s football history to assemble our greatest ever Belgium team.
Choosing Preud’homme or Jean-Marie Pfaff as our keeper was a tough call, but as good as both were, we went with Preud’homme because he brings more character to the role and to the team.
Eric Gerets is untouchable at right-back; a thoroughly modern and dynamic player, equally at home defending against opposing forwards or flying down the wing and hitting dangerous crosses into the box. In central defence Georges Grün is a strong, composed and unflappable stopper, excellent in the air and better on the ground than many gave him credit for. Alongside him we have selected Frankie Van Der Elst. This was a player who spent most of his career in a defensive midfield role, although he did drop deeper in his later years. We think he would be an ideal sweeper to partner Grün. Philippe Albert is perhaps remembered best as a buccaneering central defender, but there has always been a caution about Belgium’s approach to the game, so we like Albert better at left back where he can have more licence to surge forward. Narrowly missing out on places are Lorenzo Staelens and the impressive Laurent Verbiest who died tragically in a car crash at the age of 26.
Our midfield trio is a fantastic combination of differing, yet complementary styles and skills. Wilfried Van Moer would play as the most defensive player of the trio. He was a talented all-rounder who would seek the ball all over the pitch and his energy, work rate and leadership qualities would fortify any team. Jan Ceulemans was a physical force of nature with an all-action style. He plays as the most attacking member of the trio who would constantly surge into the penalty box from his deeper starting role, then score prolifically with head or foot. Enzo Scifo is the most elegant and cerebral member of the trio and the team would look to him to set the tempo with his passing. We overlooked 60s legend Jef Jurion as we felt he might be too physically slight in this company and Léon Semmeling narrowly misses out too.
Paul Van Himst was the first international Belgian superstar and is an obvious choice for one of the centre-forward roles. He was a clever and mobile striker, a fine dribbler, a sure finisher and a selfless and ego-free team player who played his best football on the biggest of occasions. Another player from an earlier decade partners him: Joseph Mermans was Belgium’s key striker a generation before Van Himst and would make a good partner for him. Squat and powerful with a hard shot, Mermens was a consistent scorer, season after season, for club and country. Our final player is Franky Vercauteren who plays freely down the left wing. Vercauteren is the maverick of the team; inconsistent at times but hugely skilful and creative when on song. Narrowly missing the cut for attacking places are Erwin Vandenbergh, Rik Coppens and Pol Anoul.
No doubt over who should manage this fine Belgian collective. Guy Thys had two spells and 14 years in charge of the national team, taking them memorably to fourth place in the 1986 World Cup.
Here’s some more background information on the clubs and achievements of our selection:
1. Michel Preud’homme (58 caps 1979-94) Standard Liege, Mechelen, Benfica.
Honours: 1 Cup Winners Cup, 3 Belgian League titles, 3 domestic cups (2 xBEL, 1 x POR)
2. Eric Gerets (86 caps, 2 goals 1975-91) Standard Liege, AC Milan, MVV Maastricht, PSV Eindhoven
Honours: 1 European Cup, 8 League titles (6 x HOL, 2 x BEL), 4 domestic cups (3 x HOL, 1 x BEL)
3. Phillippe Albert (41 caps, 5 goals 1987-97) Charleroi, Mechelen, Anderlecht, Newcastle, Fulham
Honours: 3 Belgian League titles, 1 Belgian domestic cup
4. Wilfried Van Moer (57 caps, 9 goals 1966-82) Beveren, Antwerp, Standard liege, Beringen, St Truiden
Honours: 3 Belgian League titles
5. Georges Grün (77 caps, 6 goals 1984-95) Anderlecht, Parma, Reggiana
Honours: 1 Cup Winners Cup, 3 Belgian League titles, 4 domestic cups (3 x BEL, 1 x ITA)
6. Franky Van Der Elst (86 caps, 1 goal 1984-98) RWD Molenbeek, Club Brugge
Honours: 5 Belgian League titles, 3 Belgian domestic cups
7. Jan Ceulemans (96 caps, 23 goals 1977-91) Lierse, Club Brugge
Honours: 4 Belgian League titles, 2 Belgian domestic cups
8. Enzo Scifo (84 caps, 18 goals 1984-98) Anderlecht, Inter, Bordeaux, Auxerre, Torino, Charleroi
Honours: 1 UEFA Cup, 5 League titles (4 x BEL, 1 x FRA) 1 Italian domestic cup
9. Joseph Mermans (56 caps, 27 goals 1945-56) Tubantia, Anderlecht, Merksem
Honours: 7 Belgian titles
10. Paul Van Himst (81 caps, 30 goals 1960-74) Anderlecht, RWD Molenbeek, Eendracht Aalst
Honours: 8 Belgian League titles, 4 Belgian domestic cups
11. Franky Vercauteren (63 caps, 9 goals 1977-88) Anderlecht, Nantes, RWD Molenbeek
Honours: 2 Cup Winners Cups, 1 UEFA Cup, 4 Belgian League titles, 2 Belgian domestic cups