Last Tuesday evening, Jan Ceulemans was at the Ostend Hippodrome race track. He wasn’t having a punt on the 19.30; he was with 10,000 like-minded people watching Belgium defeat USA in faraway Salvador.
Ceulemans is Belgium’s most-capped player with 96 appearances and one of the main men when the Red Devils last reached the World Cup quarter-finals in Mexico back in 1986. His three goals led to his selection for the tournament’s All Star XI, along with Jean-Marie Pfaff, Michel Platini, Diego Maradona and Gary Lineker.
When asked for his standout memory from Mexico, Ceulemans says that most people would probably say the last-16 match against one of the tournament favourites, the USSR – a 4-3 win after extra time. But he selects the semi-final with Argentina, when the team had grown in confidence after reaching the last four.
“We were the better team in the first half but we were stopped by the keeper and by one or two questionable offsides,” he says. A look atYouTube proves Ceulemans right on at least one occasion. Belgium lost that match 2-0 and Ceulemans sums up the second half in one word: Maradona.
In the quarter-finals, Belgium had beaten Spain on penalties, Ceulemans scoring Belgium’s goal in the 1-1 draw. He says he was too tired to take a penalty after 120 minutes in Puebla. Certainly the coach Guy Thys was struggling to find five penalty takers and Club Brugge’s Leo Van der Elst – an extra-time substitute – volunteered.
Van der Elst told Le Soir that he agreed on condition that he took the last one as he was sure Pfaff would stop a couple of Spain’s kicks. As it happened, Van der Elst had to take the decisive kick with the scores at 4-4 after Pfaff had stopped only one. Back to Ceulemans on his club-mate: “Leo placed the ball on the spot, stepped back and hit the ball right down the middle with his eyes closed.”
Belgium were in the semi-final.
Back in 1986, there had been little attention paid to the Belgium squad when they flew out to Mexico. Not playing particularly well, they qualified for the last 16 as one of the best third-placed teams. Interest back home did increase as the team progressed but that was as nothing compared to 2014 when around 30,000 fans watched Marc Wilmots’ team in Genk at a training session.
According to Ceulemans, the country has gone World Cup crazy. “If you decide to go for a drive when Wilmots’ men are playing in Brazil, you will have the road to yourself.” Indeed, astonishing TV viewing figures have been recorded with audiences reaching 85% of the potential audience across Flanders, Brussels and Wallonia.
Unlike today’s young turks, the 1986 team was a mixture of youth (Enzo Scifo, Patrick Vervoort, Stéphane Demol) and experience (Ceulemans, Pfaff, Eric Gerets, Franky Vercauteren). Aged 20, Anderlecht’s Scifo was just starting his career and was named young player of the tournament.
Ironically, while the majority of Wilmots’ squad play in Europe’s major leagues and over half have Champions League experience, they are totally inexperienced when it comes to major tournaments.
However, today’s players are known across the globe while 28 years ago, only two of the squad played outside Belgium’s borders: Gerets at PSV and Pfaff at Bayern Munich.
As for Saturday, “We’ll see what happens”, says Ceulemans. “This is the game of the tournament. We’ll be able to measure ourselves against the best.”
He says organisation will be important against Argentina and they will have to play in a block.
Ceulemans has a high regard for Kevin De Bruyne and, back in May, he told me that the Wolfsburg midfielder could surprise a few people. Today, he mentions the Liverpool target Divock Origi. Ceulemans admits that the youngster was almost unknown in Belgium before the World Cup but he likes what he has seen of Origi. “He’s fast with a good technique, he can work in small spaces and can make and score goals”.
Origi was born in 1995 in Ostend and that’s where Ceulemans will be again on Saturday night. “I’m looking forward to it; good food, music and a great atmosphere to watch the game.”
Whatever the result against Argentina, the Belgium team will return to a hero’s welcome. Wilmots’ men have captured the hearts of the nation. You only have to go to a training session and hear the screams to understand that.
When the 1986 team came home, they were greeted by 20,000 fans packed into Brussels’ Grand Place. With 40,000 expected at the Roi Baudouin stadium to watch Belgium play Argentina, over a quarter of a million expected at giant screens stationed across the country and roughly 5m TV sets tuned in to watch the match, the Grand Place will be far too small a venue this time.