x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Talent backs up Belgian fans’ high hopes for their team’s World Cup prospects

For the first time in 12 years, the Belgium national team has qualified for the World Cup, giving fans high hopes for their Red Devils.

Simon Thurston and his daughter Daisy, at home in Dubai, show their true colours by sporting Belgium jerseys. Lee Hoagland / The National
Simon Thurston and his daughter Daisy, at home in Dubai, show their true colours by sporting Belgium jerseys. Lee Hoagland / The National

ABU DHABI // For the first time in 12 years, the Belgium national team has qualified for the World Cup, giving fans high hopes for their Red Devils.

“We do actually have a very, very bright young team,” said Belgian Simon Thurston, a 41-year-old copywriter living in Dubai. “There’s a lot of optimism in Belgium, but also kind of cautious realism as well, because it is the World Cup. It’s not going to be easy, but, yeah there’s a quiet confidence that yeah maybe we can do quite well.”

“Now they have a very, very strong team,” said Francis Chege, a 33-year-old Kenyan who cheers for Belgium from Abu Dhabi. “They have a lot of big names. I think this time around the team might reach maybe the semi-finals.”

Mr Thurston agreed with Mr Chege’s ambitious predictions for Belgium.

“Whether they have quite enough to go the whole way – I think when you look at other teams - like Brazil or Argentina, Germany, even Portugal are fairly talented – I think that might be a bit of a push. I think we might need a little bit of luck to go all the way, but I think the quarter-finals is very realistic, I think the semi-finals are perhaps a possibility. The final would be a dream. The quarter-finals would be quite realistic given the team that we have and the group that we’re in.”

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Belgium will return to the World Cup stage on Tuesday night, when they face off against Algeria, a team with only three previous World Cup appearances. The Belgians are also set to take on South Korea and, possibly their biggest threat, as part of their Group H tournament.

“I think Russia, historically, they’ve done pretty well in World Cups and European championships,” said Mr Thurston. “I think because they’ve got quite a physical team, which I think matches closely to the team that we had in our qualifying group – we were pitted against Croatia, who play a similar style, they’re a very physical, big team, and another Eastern European team – and we struggled in our first match with them because of their physical nature. So, that might be the biggest threat in our group.”

Although a youthful team, the Belgians also have experienced star footballers on their roster, like Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany and Atletico Madrid’s Thibaut Courtois.

“The top player, I would say is a person called Eden Hazard, he’s a midfielder and he plays for Chelsea at the moment,” said Mr Thurston. “He is very creative, he scores a lot of goals, he takes the penalties, the free kicks. I guess you could call him the David Beckham of the Belgian team. He’s the sort of pin-up boy. He’s very skillful. He’s still very young and I think his creativity will be very much needed, particularly in the World Cup, when you get to the knockout stages, defences will be very strong and you need someone who can have that bit of skill, that bit of creativity, a bit of guile to unlock the defence and create the opportunities.”

It helps that their young coach, Marc Wilmots, is admired by fans and players alike.

“He’s a former player, so he’s been there,” said Mr Thurston. “He knows what it takes to get there and to win and I think he’s also brought a lot of fresh ideas to the coaching. … I’m really excited about the whole organization. It’s youthful and got a lot of fresh ideas. I’m hoping not just for this tournament but the future is very bright as well.”

rpennington@thenational.ae