Belgium has six points from two games and has safely progressed into the knockout round. Two games and two wins would satisfy most, but the Red Devils have not lived up to their potential. Both wins have come late on, after long periods of uninspired play. With all the hype about Belgium being this World Cup’s dark horse, they are playing much more like an old, underperforming favorite than an inspiring upstart. And maybe that’s not a bad thing.
Being an underdog has its perks. There is little to no pressure, and everyone will be happy with you if you just put in the effort. The result won’t matter so much as whether or not you competed. Belgium has been that underdog for much of the country’s sporting history. But now, they have reached the stage where they must face the pressure. Tipped by so many to be dark-horses, they in turn became overrated in many people’s eyes, with a ton to prove. The consensus among their critics was that they had not earned the status people were giving them. They hadn’t even qualified for the European Championships in 2012.
Belgium is a squad of Premier League stars. It’s a squad that many casual fans won’t be familiar with because of their inexperience on the international level, but any week in-week out fan of club soccer will know them all. There’s an abundance of talent everywhere. Because of their individual talent, they became a “great” team overnight, without ever actually becoming a team.
Now they are out to prove that they are a team rather than merely a group of individual stars. But their first two contests have not settled that debate in any favorable way. They look uncomfortable playing together, afraid to step outside the system to show off their own skill. Creative players like Eden Hazard have been uncharacteristically unadventurous in their first two games. It hasn’t been until the substitutes have come in the field in both matches that Belgium has shown any signs of their talent. Only when they are allowed to be themselves do they look a team.
The age old question is whether a team with a bunch of individual stars is better than one that will play like a team. In this World Cup, the two teams that will aim to settle this debate are Belgium and Costa Rica. With both being relative newcomers to big-time soccer success, they have advanced in completely different ways. Belgium, as I said above, has needed their individuals to carry them when their system has failed to produce any results, while Costa Rica, a team whose unheralded players have been around each other for years, has commanded matches from the start with their tactics and spirit as a team. Both have six points, but wouldn’t you have to say Costa Rica has been more impressive so far?
Belgium certainly have the talent to go far in this tournament. But where they are as a team right now does not meet the necessary level to progress in the knockout stages. This talented group of individuals needs a lot more time over the next few years to become comfortable playing with one another. For now, they might be better off abandoning hope that they’ll become a true team in Brazil. Releasing the individual talent will be their savior, as few teams possess Belgium’s individual talent. However, if they try to play as a team at this point in their development, it won’t be enough.
Not many teams can be more successful if they abandon the team mentality. But if Marc Wilmots wants his squad to advance in the World Cup, he needs to unleash the individuals, because in this case, the stars are bigger than the team.
Do you think my unorthodox suggestion is preposterous? Please comment below and tell me what you think.