There are 20 minutes left to play at Belo Horizonte on 17 June and Belgium are not only trailing in their opening game to Algeria, but appear to be losing the tactical battle too. Fast forward five days and Les Diables Rouges (Red Devils) are faring only slightly better against Russia, unable to unlock their opponents’ defence in the closing moments of a seemingly inevitable 0-0 draw at the Maracana.
The situation then looks even more fraught at half-time during their final Group H outing against Korea Republic, with Marc Wilmots’ side a man down and bereft of ideas in Sao Paolo. And yet, somehow – and for the first time in their history – Belgium emerged with a full complement of three wins and nine points as they secured their spot in the Round of 16.
“If someone had told us before the World Cup that we’d finish with nine points out of nine in the group stage, we never would have believed it,” said Daniel van Buyten, as impressed as anyone with his team’s late heroics in each fixture. FIFA met up with the veteran defender for a privileged insight into Belgium’s secret, particularly as teams do not tend to get lucky the same way three times in a row. As the squad’s oldest player and the sole survivor of Belgium’s 2002 FIFA World Cup™ bid, Van Buyten possesses a unique perspective on what has given the European hopefuls their winning edge.
Crucially, it seems, Les Diables Rouges travelled to Brazil content to make solid if low-key progress, rather than looking to sweep their rivals off the pitch. “We could have tried to be spectacular, but that wouldn’t have made much sense if we’d just got eliminated at the end of it,” explains the 36-year-old. He feels too that it has not been easy taking on teams that have put numbers behind the ball. “Everyone has seen that we’ve had difficulties, especially against Algeria. It’s tough to make things happen when you’re up against sides who build a wall in front of their goal.”
Focus on the moment
For Van Buyten, Belgium’s capacity to find solutions has much to do with their rigid focus on the moment at hand as opposed to what has come before or lies ahead. “The most important thing is not to think about the future or let yourself get distracted,” he says. “We’ll have all the time in the world to pick over everything afterwards. The World Cup is happening now and we have to rise to the challenge.”
Wilmots’ side have clearly managed that with aplomb so far, and Van Buyten has been struck by his team’s response to adversity – the true test of a side’s mental strength. “The important thing is to have shown our solidity and kept our organisation when things have been difficult.”
Another ingredient in Belgium’s winning recipe has been the attitude of the younger players, with Wilmots boasting a number of emerging talents at his disposal. “They’re calm, willing to listen and always ready to get to work,” said Van Buyten, who knows a thing or two about success after a long career in the game and a steady flow of trophies since joining Bayern Munich. “It’s normal that good things are happening to these youngsters as they’ve shown they’re capable of staying relaxed and detached.”
Having met their primary goal of qualifying for the knockout phase, Belgium are now gearing up to start a whole new kind of tournament. Van Buyten is expecting his side to be involved in more open, attacking contests as the competition progresses, starting with their last-16 test against USA – a tie the 6’5 centre-half would have preferred avoiding, even if it meant taking on Portugal. “I’m not surprised that the Americans finished second in their group when you look at their continued improvement and their performance against Germany, despite the result (a 1-0 loss).”
Bringing a halt to the Stars and Stripes’ momentum will be no easy task, and the Salvador showdown is already shaping up to be another hard-fought encounter. But, if Van Buyten and Co have proved anything at Brazil 2014, it is that they have the requisite steel to win even the tensest battle of nerves.