The nervy entry
Derby der Lage Landen/les Pays-Bas or the football rivalry between Holland and Belgium is not highly anticipated worldwide, still, for the respective fans of both the nations, it has the importance. Whenever the Dutch meet the Red Devils, there is always that extra edge on the pitch.
So, in the winter of 1985 when Holland and Belgium met each other to earn a place in the World Cup 1986, failure was never an option – for the Dutch, it was a matter of prestige because after the era of Johan Cruyff, Holland have not been able to lift themselves up in the World Cups in the 80s and for which, a place in the showpiece event would help them to inject life among the frustrated fans, who gave up dreaming since that miraculous match between Spain and Malta for the Euro qualifiers in 1984.
Spain needed to win by 11 goals to deny Holland. Cue a miracle. Somehow the Spanish turned a 3-1 half-time scoreline into a barely believable 12-1 victory, qualifying for Euro 84, and prompting raised eyebrows and broken hearts among the Dutch.
And, guess what, the heartbroken saga was not over.
While Holland were spending time in the wilderness during the 80s, their neighbours – Belgium were experiencing a period of resurgence.
Runners-up in the 1980 European Championships, qualification for Spain 82 and a win over reigning champions Argentina in the opening match of the tournament, and narrowly missing out on a semi-final spot at Euro 84, showed that Belgian football was in a healthy state.
Players such as Jean-Marie Pfaff, Eric Gerets, Franky Vercauteren, Jan Ceulemans, and a young Enzo Scifo, gave the team star quality, enabling a relatively small nation to regularly punch above their weight under the expert tutelage of the experienced Guy Thys.
However, the Belgians had made qualification for Mexico that much harder, a shock 2-0 defeat away in Albania (Albania’s only win in the group), meaning that they travelled to Poland in their final match requiring a win to automatically qualify.
A 0-0 draw saw the Belgians miss out on goals scored, setting up the derby dates with Holland to decide the 22nd team bound for Mexico.
The match in Poland was Gerets’ first for his country for almost two years, a consequence of the Standard Liege-Waterschei match-fixing scandal at the conclusion of the 1981-82 Belgian league season.
Needing a win on the final day to guarantee the title, various Waterschei players were approached by Gerets – with the blessing of Standard’s Administrator Roger Petit and manager Raymond Goethals – with the team offered 420,000 Belgian Francs to throw the game and to go easy on Standard’s players who had the European Cup Winners’ Cup final with Barcelona to come just four days later.
When news of the story broke in February 1984, the national team was hit hard, skipper Gerets was given a three-year ban (later reduced to two years, and then rescinded), hardly ideal preparations for the forthcoming European Championships. As Nottingham Forest fans will no doubt recall though, it was not the only case of corruption in Belgian football during this period.
There was a distinct lack of Belgian fair play come the third minute of the first leg of the play-off at the Constant Vanden Stock Stadium in Brussels.
Franky Vercauteren, using his years of experience, went head-to-head with Wim Kieft, before hitting the deck theatrically, persuading Italian referee Pietro D’Elia to reach for a red card.
Vercauteren would be a marked man in the return-leg in Rotterdam, but for now, Vercauteren had turned the match decisively in favour of Belgium, and with 10 men for the majority of the first leg, it would be a long evening for the Dutch.
Vercauteren scored the only goal of the match and had the advantage of an away goal and with Kieft and Marco van Basten suspended for the second-leg, Belgium sensed something special.
On a cold and freezing night in Roteedom in November 1985, Holland watched Belgium taking control over the match on a tough pitch.
With the match scoreless at half-time, Beenhakker took a gamble, bringing on Utrecht forward John van Loen for his debut in place of defender Michel van de Korput. It would be a decision that would shape the course of the evening and one that would come back to haunt both Beenhakker and the debutant substitute.
Thys reacted instantly, introducing Georges Grun to the action, assigning the centre-half to mark van Loen, and dealing with the increasing number of long balls the Dutch were desperately launching to the target man. Grun coped admirably, winning numerous aerial battles, and with half an hour remaining, anxiety was spreading through the de Kuip stadium.
An error in the 60th minute from Gerets let Rob de Wit escape down the left, his high hanging cross headed in at the far post by Houtman, and when de Wit cracked in a left-footed shot on 72 minutes, the stadium exploded. Once the celebrations had ended, the home support joyously began to sing about Mexico.
Holland became edgy, Beenhakker switching Gullit to sweeper for extra protection; Thys went on the front foot, moving Grun upfront, in search of the crucial away goal which would clinch it for the Belgians.
And then came one of the most famous goals in Belgian football history, and a moment that would define the careers of both Grun and Van Loen. From a Gerets cross, Grun easily beat van Loen in the air, his header past van Breukelen and nestling in the net before the keeper could react.
The tie had finished 2-2 on aggregate, but Grun’s away goal was effectively the winner.
Holland were out, Belgium would travel to Mexico.
The Mexican adventure
Mexico 86 was all about Diego Armando Maradona.
But, of course, there were other teams and players who lit up the tournament – Belgium and their boys were one of them.
But, their start was disastrous.
In their opening match against the hosts, they lost and then scratched their way to advance to the next round where they would meet one of the bests of the group stages – the Soviet Union.
After an unconvincing victory over Iraq, in the decisive group match with Paraguay, they would twice take the lead only to be pegged back on both occasions, the resulting 2-2 draw leaving Belgium finishing third in the group and thus, who else but the Soviets were waiting to steamroll them.
The thriller at Leon, taming the mighty Soviet Union
At Leon, in front of 32,000 spectators, Jan Cuelemans and Enzo Scifo would redefine the history of Belgian football in the World Cups.
The Soviet Union featuring exceptional talents such as Igor Belanov, who would be voted the 1986 European Footballer of the Year; the gifted midfielder Alexandr Zavarov, who pipped Belanov to that year’s Soviet Player of the Year prize; and the veteran forward Oleg Blokhin, a future coach of Ukraine at the World Cup.
They underlined their quality – and uncustomary flair – with a stunning 6-0 win over Hungary in their opening game and then drew 1-1 with European champions France en route to topping their group and setting up their meeting with Belgium.
Seven of Dynamo’s Cup Winners’ Cup-winning team were in the Soviet starting line-up and their understanding was clear to see in a confident start. With their crisp, short passing, they soon had Belgium on the back foot. Belanov and Zavarov, in particular, were linking up beautifully and it was no surprise when this pair conspired to produce the first goal.
Zavarov slipped the ball forward to Belanov and he cut across the edge of the box on a diagonal run before turning and slanting the ball back towards the opposite corner. As the ball slammed in off the post, the scorer wheeled away in celebration of one of the goals of the tournament. Twenty-seven minutes played and the Soviets were ahead.
Against the run of play, Belgium found a 56th-minute equaliser. The Soviet defence was caught napping as Frank Vercauteren’s cross found Scifo unmarked at the far post and the youngster had time to bring the ball down before steering it past Dassaiev.
Belgium were back in the match yet Lobanovskyi’s men soon rediscovered their stride. With 70 minutes on the clock, Jan Ceulemans surrendered possession in midfield and the Soviets were away.
Zavarov slipped the ball through to Belanov and the No19 managed to squeeze it beneath the diving Pfaff and inside the far post.
If Ceulemans was at fault there, he made amends with Belgium’s second equaliser seven minutes later. Whether or not the departure of the influential Zavarov, replaced by substitute Sergei Rodionov, lifted the Belgians, the real turning point came with their captain’s strike. A long ball from the back found Ceulemans in acres of space and, with the Soviets’ offside claims ignored, he controlled the ball on his chest before turning and shooting low into the far corner.
With extra-time looming, the Belgians rode their luck when Ivan Yaremchuk’s shot rebounded off the crossbar but they then threatened a dramatic winner themselves only for Dassaiev to punch away at full stretch and deny Scifo. Having led twice, the Soviets were now asked to do it a third time on a hot, stormy afternoon. They could not, and instead, 12 minutes into the additional half-hour, Belgium finally got their noses in front. From a short corner, Eric Gerets swung a cross to the far post and the unmarked Stephane De Mol headed powerfully home.
The underdogs could smell victory and in the 110th minute, Nico Claesen extended their lead. Latching onto substitute Leo Clijsters headed flick, Claesen turned and dispatched a sweetly-struck volley past Dassaiev. The drama was not over yet, though, as 60 seconds later Belanov won and converted the penalty that completed his hat-trick. Belgian nerves were jangling again but a fourth goal proved beyond the Soviets, Pfaff tipping over Evtushenko’s audacious chip in the dying seconds.
Through to the last eight for the first time, the Belgians celebrated wildly.
The Spanish challenge
Having conquered the celebrated Soviets, they would next face a team who had also sprung a surprise. Spain had run riot against a devastatingly good Danish team that had lost its way in the last 16. But it was Belgium who appeared the most comfortable in the opening stages, being rewarded for their early endeavours with another Ceulemans goal, heading home unmarked at the back post. This was the spur for Belgium to push on and they were unfortunate not to add to this lead.
The transformation from the side that had appeared so disjointed, bordering on the inept, in the early matches of the tournament into a real contender for the latter stages was as unlikely as it was astonishing. But with Belgium having failed to capitalise on their superiority, Spain began to come into the contest as it wore on, with an equaliser appearing increasingly imminent It eventually came with only six minutes left on the clock, thanks to a sensational strike from Señor that flew past Pfaff.
Extra-time between the two exhausted teams progressed towards the inevitability of a penalty shootout. Within touching distance of a historic achievement, it was the Belgians who would hold their nerve the better, converting all of their kicks, with Pfaff saving Spain’s second to become the hero of the day.
Maradona ends the Belgian fairytale
At Azteca, Belgium met Diego Maradona.
They beat the same opponent at Barcelona four years, but this time around, they were no match against a force named Maradona, who was at the height of his powers.
In the searing heat of a blinding Azteca afternoon, Argentina dominated the first half, breaking through almost at will, leaving the Belgian’s bewildered bystanders on more than one occasion. That they survived to the interval was no mean achievement. And survival it was; their massed defence holding out through luck as much as judgement.
There was little hint of the attacking capabilities that had been to the fore in their previous two knockout matches, save for one quick counter-attack that threatened a breakthrough but was flagged offside.
Otherwise, they were simply unable to make any significant inroads into the Argentine territory, taking on a team of talent that was a level beyond anything they’d faced so far.
Maradona magic would end the Belgian fairytale.
They would finish as the fourth-best team of the tournament as they lost to France of Michel Platini in the third-place playoff.
Memories of Mexico 86 according to Enzo Scifo
Enzo Scifo was awarded as the best young player of the event.
He shared his views about that glorious summer with FIFA five years ago.
Given Belgium’s slow start to the competition, it could easily not have happened at all.
“We’d only just made it out of the group as one of the best third-placed teams,” recalled Scifo.
“There was friction within the squad, but the coach was able to take the right measures. The squad pulled together again and we rediscovered a certain humility that allowed us to knock out the Soviet Union and Spain, who were among the tournament favourites.”
That would soon prove a valuable lesson for the gifted midfield prospect.
“Throughout my career, that was a reference point for me,” said Scifo.
“I clung to it, telling myself that if that could happen, anything was possible. I realised that football isn’t about playing in the best team. You need to have values and humility – and to tell yourself that sometimes you might not be the best, but you can compete with the best. I understood all of that at the age of 20.”
Regarding the Maradona Magic he said, “He’s the one who knocked us out and he denied us a place in the Final with his two goals,” said Scifo.
“He made the difference because Argentina weren’t having a good day. Nor were we because we’d just played two games that went to extra time, and physically we were really feeling the effects. But he destroyed us.”
“I have a special affection for Maradona,” said Scifo, who also faced Maradona the following season when his Inter Milan side tackled Napoli.
“I’ve never tried to measure myself against anyone. I just had admiration for a player like him, even if he was my opponent.”
“I came up against a few great players in my career, but Maradona is among the ones who impressed me the most, and not simply because of his style of play. He had his own unique moves, but he also had an ability to always be clinical and change games single-handedly. I wondered how he did it. That’s why everyone admired him. He had a game intelligence that allowed him to be decisive at any moment.”
After the era of Ceulemans and Scifo, another golden generation of Belgium came but failed to reach the pinnacle of glory in the major events.
Inputs from: FIFA, The Guardian and These Football Times