– Boria Majumdar
I was in Brussels on 1 July 2016 when a much fancied Belgium side, touted by many as the best ever the country has produced, unexpectedly crashed out of the Euros losing 1-3 against a Gareth Bale led Wales. The Grand Palace, a scene of much delight and anticipation before the match started with music, bands, flags and headgear of real fancy shapes and sizes visible in plenty, was emptied out in no time. While some made peace with their beers in the many pubs at hand, others hurriedly left the party, which had to be abandoned midway. A truckload of broken beer bottles by late evening was proof of the national tragedy that had yet again broken Belgian hearts.
Many felt 2018 would be different. Yet again I was in the country and the moment you landed in Brussels you could sense a kind of silent anticipation. Yes there were posters of the Hazard and the Lukaku brothers that greeted you and the tabloids were full of news of the final squad being inadvertently leaked by the host broadcaster ahead of the final announcement, but each question was met with a very cautious “let’s not build it up” kind of answer. No one, it seemed, wanted to say “yes we are good and we will go the distance.” Perennial underachievers for a decade now, the fans, perhaps the most passionate in Europe, were unwilling to have their hopes up. “It is really painful”, explained a student of the local engineering college who was with me on the same aircraft. “Better let the team perform first. If they do it will be a month long party”.
May be he was right. Things haven’t changed in Doha in 2022 and the defeat to Morocco have come as a shock to their fans. Morocoo?, many asked. As the Morocco fans celebrated late into the night at the Msheireb metro station, the few Belgian fans just went about their business silently. They feel let down and justly so. They have everything and yet they don’t won. It is much like the Indian teams at ICC world cups. We have some of the best individual players in Virat, Rohit and the like and yet we don’t win. And unless you win titles, individual achievements mean little in team sport.
As Belgium takes on Croatia in their last group game tonight at the Ahmed Bin Ali stadium, the sense of anticipation, however, is impossible to miss. Talk in the local metro and buses are mostly on football and despite not picking most of what is being said, it is impossible to miss the names- Courtois, De Bruyne, Hazard…
Can Belgium actually shed the tag of big stage underachievers and do what the golden generation has promised for a while now? While they do have the team, may be an ageing one, cup campaigns have mostly ended in tragedy so far. Do the players have the nous for the big stage and can they carry Europe’s most passionate fan brigade along with them till mid December? If you are in Brussels at the moment all you will get in abundance is silence. Confidence yes but far less pronounced then Euro 2016. And in Doha, the anticipation is there but it is of a cautious kind. As I said, lessons have been learnt and learnt the hard way.