First came boos and whistles. And then, a Brazilian taunt cascaded down the stands of the Maracana stadium – “Little team, your place is in the second division.”
The Belgians had felt honoured to play at the famous stadium but the local fans did not exactly return the love during Belgium’s laboured 1-0 win over Russia on Sunday.
A day later, the Belgium squad was cherishing the two victories that have ensured their passage to the knockout phase ahead of tonight’s game against South Korea. But after much pre-tournament hype, fans will still be looking for more. How about a little style?
“There will always be something to complain about,” said Belgium coach Marc Wilmots yesterday and noted that fans of already eliminated Spain and England had more reason to be glum. “Pretty, pretty, pretty makes no one happy. We need to show efficiency. And we did exactly that.” So far only the Netherlands and France have been able to combine beauty with ruthless efficiency. Belgium have been doing just enough to win.
This World Cup is their moment to shed a reputation stretching back over four decades of thriving only on defensive play before scoring a single goal to steal victory. With classy players – from playmaker Eden Hazard to central defender Vincent Kompany and midfielder Kevin De Bruyne – it was time for a fundamental change. But as much as Belgium impressed during the qualification campaign, they have been underwhelming in Brazil.
Two late goals gave them a 2-1 win against Algeria and an 88th-minute strike a 1-0 win over Russia that secured passage into the next round.
Twice, Wilmots argued, the opposition had to be worn down with possession play before the breakthrough could come. While it has not been pretty, it has delivered the points. Wilmots assured that the best was yet to come. “The tournament starts for real now,” he said. “We are in the second round.”
A lot of that beauty is supposed to come from the feet of Hazard. So far, he has waited until very late to produce the goods. “We weren’t at our usual 100 per cent,” Hazard acknowledged. “With time, we will try and produce better matches and develop more beautiful games.”
The only problem, of course, is that in the knockout phase, efficiency becomes even more essential. That alone could stifle creativity. Wilmots only needs to remember his last campaign as player, when Belgium lost in the second round against Brazil at the 2002 World Cup. “We played beautiful football then. But we were quickly eliminated. I know what I prefer,” he said.
Algeria, who play Russia tonight, are in prime position to join Belgium in the last 16, needing a point to progress (barring a South Korean miracle). However, Yacine Brahimi believes attacking is the only way to guarantee progress.
“We played some very attacking football against Korea and we need to repeat that against Russia,” said the midfielder. “It won’t be easy but it wasn’t easy [against Korea] either and that didn’t stop us from keeping our calm and playing some good football.”
Russia go into the match in Curitiba needing a win, although to guarantee a place in the last 16 they would have to match any victory South Korea achieved. “We were all disappointed about conceding late on against Belgium but we’ve still got a chance of continuing in the tournament,” the full-back Aleksei Kozlov said. “While that’s the case we can’t start thinking about anything else.”
Who goes through?
Belgium have already qualified, while Algeria will join them if they beat Russia tonight, or get a point and South Korea fail to beat Belgium. The Russians progress with victory over Algeria, provided Korea don’t better their scoreline as they play the Belgians – a result that would qualify the Koreans.