The very young men of Belgium’s national team start their World Cup campaign tomorrow on a wave of expectations. The punditry of world football long ago declared them the outside challengers—the long-odd, the tournament sleeper, the underdog—a news outlet none other than RapGenius.com has dubbed them ‘World Cup Dark Horses’. This is all very tragic for the neutral fan favorites from the lowlands because it means now they definitely won’t win the World Cup.
In 1985, Universal Pictures released Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. It is a film widely heralded by critics as one of the greatest science fiction films of all time—a darkly comic dystopian vision of a bureaucratic nightmare state. Brazil represents the height of Gilliam’s work, a clear example of his subversive comedic voice—a tone that was praised for being, “[…] a superb example of the power of comedy to underscore serious ideas, even solemn ones.” The narrative speaks to the human capacity for transcendence in the face of oppressive systems—that love conquers all.
Except that it doesn’t: That last bit is what executives at Universal thought American audiences would accept. Gilliam’s original ending depicted Sam Lowry, played by Jonathan Pryce, sinking into the delusion of happiness, strapped to a chair and left alone, surrounded by gloom, with his heroic escape only a dream. A fitting end for a film that grossed $5 million below its budget—a creative exclamation that fortune chose to ignore. Terry Gilliam’s Brazil is a cult classic, a film that found life after disappointment through the VCR’s of an audience grateful for that queer and affecting vision.
Belgium are the little movie that could—a team of surfacing young talents like Adnan Januzaj and Romelu Lukaku playing alongside established stars like Thibaut Courtois and Eden Hazard, who are both under 23 themselves. The emergence of this ‘New Golden Generation’ has been a machine spinning up for years now as individual players established themselves as standouts in Europe’s strongest leagues.
Vincent Kompany captained Manchester City to an FA Cup victory and two Premier League titles in four years, winning the EPL’s Player of the Season honors in the 2011-2012 season. With Atletico Madrid, Courtois manned the goal of a side that broke Real Madrid and Barcelona’s decade-long hegemony of La Liga, and put Atleti in the Champion’s League final—all on loan.
Belgium have earned all the underdog synonyms the media have copy-pasted in the run up to the 2014 World Cup Finals. Their makeup and style inspires a familiar narrative for football writers to filter through. They play an attractive, possession-based game—often in a 4-2-3-1 double pivot where players like Hazard and Nacer Chadli attack inside, allowing them to creatively instigate, while Lukaku pulls defenders from space with intelligent runs and scores with an ever-growing confidence. The Rode Duivels are managed by former player-captain Marc Wilmots who still holds the team record for most goals in a World Cup (5), who stepped in to reinvigorate a team at one of it’s lowest points.
It is easy to squint and see Wilmots as Pep Guardiola or Brendan Rodgers, and Belgium’s style as any number of teams riding their own model of franken-totaalvoetball about pitches—from Bayern to Barca and Everton to Pulis’ Palace—each resulting in variable success. The onomatopoetically named tiki taka and its analogues became vogue for a reason—Xavi Hernandez can’t take two graceful and visionary steps around his house before some trophy sends him ass over eyeballs.
Playing the possession game requires more than just the pursuit of admirable and attractive football though. Barcelona’s historic gilded age was built on Guardiola’s extremely demanding system that stressed ball-retention on both sides of play—attacks are deliberately constructed through pass-receive-pass exchanges that depend on intelligent player movement to open space and ensure a constant outlet to release defensive pressure, while defense stresses rapid retrieval through high-pressing in all areas of the pitch. The theory is that controlling the ball limits opposition chances, and when possession is lost, swift application of pressure forces opponents to make mistakes, which can be converted into quick counters that capitalize on loss of positional shape.
The strategy is reliant on well-drilled, skillful technique players capable of fluid interchange and creation. Barca’s La Masia is credited greatly with the team’s success, the academy producing a generation of athletes schooled in Cruyffian ideology from youth; experts in both the system and each other by senior-level. The groundwork for the team’s success was laid with a long Dutch bloodline reaching all the way back through Rijkaard, Van Gaal, Cruyff and Michels and Cruyff again. Spain’s international era of dominance is not tangentially connected, with their heralded youth structure formed by Ginés Meléndez over a decade ago, indoctrinating a conveyer belt of young mobile passers.
Beautiful football that wins tournaments takes time to grow, and while this young Belgian squad has been percolating for some time, prior to 2014 they have failed to qualify for a major tournament for a fallow age stretching back to the 2002 World Cup. Those of you wishing to play Rode Duivel’s advocate will argue that UEFA is the football’s most competitive region, and I’ll be happy to give you Euro 2008 as a fair miss, but the bulk of this current squad failed to qualify for the 2012 edition, finishing third in their group with losses to German and Turkey, and draws with Austria and Azerbaijan—a team few are tipping for surprises at this summer’s tournament.
Immediately after Belgium’s failure to qualify for the Euro’s, the prediction race began as stories selling the ‘maybe-could-they-perhaps’ World Cup narrative came early and strong, a trend which as the tournament’s opening game at Arena Corinthians approaches will only see “belgium + dark horse” Google search results jog right up.
Belgium are not dark horses though, they are cult favorites. For their long absence from the brightest stage they are both compelling and novel—a font of seductive attacking football that pours from exciting young men like Eden Hazard who warps around defenders, pulling them in and slinging past, leaving only a memory behind.
In a time when Spain have cornered the market on winning, these brash young things are a disruption—they are the taco cart outside Chipotle, Max Headroom, and Crystal Pepsi. They are Marouane Fellaini’s hair, their endearingly ugly kits, and twitter jokes about waffles. They are joy for all of us.
The modern World Cup has no room for pluck and joy though—goals come hard, cynicism is rewarded, and the giants loom larger than ever. They all have too much to prove, too much to live up to that the odds are one of them lives up. This will be no Denmark ’92 or Greece ’04. The Belgians will fall short, maybe even just short, but like Gilliam’s Brazil we’ll love them anyway because even if it doesn’t conquer all, the fantasy was enough.