When Marc Wilmots nervelessly slotted home a late penalty in the Letná stadium in Prague last November he preserved one of the most astonishing qualification records in world football.
Sixth succesive finals
The goal secured a 2-0 aggregate win over the Czech Republic and with it Belgium's passage to the 2002 FIFA World Cup finals in Korea/Japan - the sixth successive World Cup tournament the Lowlands nation have reached. The only other nations at Korea/Japan who can boast of a similar unbroken run of World Cup appearances (Brazil, Italy, Argentina, Spain and Germany) achieved at least one automatic qualification each as either tournament winners or hosts. Tiny Belgium, with a population of just over 10.25m, compared to Brazil's 174m or Germany's 83m, have done it the hard way every time.
Uncertainty and disappointment
The successful World Cup campaign was a real boost to Belgian football after three years of uncertainty and disappointment. Three draws in the group stages of the 1998 World Cup finals in France saw the Red Devils, then coached by Georges Leekens, eliminated before the knockout stages. The country's co-hosting of EURO 2000™ soon became a date to dread for Belgian football fans as Leekens' turbulent reign continued into the summer of 1999 with the team in poor form and Enzo Scifo, Luc Nilis and Gilles De Bilde refusing to play for the side while Leekens was still in charge.
An embarrassing 0-0 draw with Luxembourg in November 1998 was followed by a narrow 1-0 win over Cyprus in February 1999. The Red Devils then suffered five successive 1-0 defeats before some measure of respectability was regained with draws against Peru and the hosts Japan in the Kirin Cup summer tournament. A 2-1 victory against the Korean Republic gave Leekens a stay of execution but when they lost 4-3 at home to Finland in their next friendly he was sacked.
The appointment of Robert Waseige as Leekens' replacement did not initially set Belgian pulses racing. A former coach of several top-flight clubs, Waseige had never led a side to the Belgian title, although he did lead FC Liège to a Belgian Cup win in 1990. Nevertheless, Waseige's opening game as national coach, a thrilling 5-5 draw with Lowlands rivals the Netherlands, raised the morale of the nation. More impressive results followed in the remaining warm-up games before EURO 2000™, including a 4-0 thumping of Morocco and a 3-1 win over Italy - Belgium's first away victory against the Azzurri.
This run of positive results engendered much optimism within the Belgian camp ahead of the UEFA European Championships - this optimism appeared to be justified when goals from Bart Goor and Emile Mpenza gave the Red Devils a 2-1 win in their opening group game in Brussels against Sweden. A 2-0 reverse against Italy in Belgium's second game left Waseige's men needing a draw or win in their final group game against Turkey to reach the quarter-finals. Despite dominating the match, and enjoying 20 shots to Turkey's five, Belgium failed to make the most of their chances, losing to two Hakan Sükür strikes and becoming the first host nation ever to be eliminated in the group stages of the European Championships.
The result was a hammer blow to Waseige, however, the Belgian Football Association made it clear he was the man they wanted to lead the country through the qualifying series for the World Cup. Drawn in a relatively tough group alongside Croatia, Scotland, Latvia and San Marino, many critics made the mistake of once again writing off Belgium. However, methodically and painstakingly Waseige reconstructed his team, and his tactics. Eschewing the carefree attacking style that had entertaining, but ultimately disappointed at EURO 2000™, Waseige built a more compact, solid side around his most accomplished player, Marc Wilmots. He also gave international chances to previously ignored or discarded talents such as Bob Peeters, Daniel van Buyten, Jurgen Cavens and Johan Walem.
Group Six developed into an absorbing three-way battle between Belgium, Croatia and Scotland. The Red Devils drew their opening encounter at home to the Croatians 0-0. Next up was a potentially tricky trip to Latvia, but Waseige's men emerged comfortable 4-0 winners thanks to goals from Wilmots, Peeters, Cavens and Gert Verheyen. The side's next performance was even more impressive as they crushed San Marino 10-1 to go top of the group, with Peeters notching a hat-trick. However with almost an hour gone of their next qualifier against Scotland at Hampden Park stadium, Belgium's World Cup hopes were hanging by a thread. The Scots led 2-0 and the Red Devils had been reduced to ten men after the sending off of Eric Deflandre. However the fighting spirit instilled into the side by Waseige shone through as they battled back to snatch a draw thanks to a Wilmots header and an injury-time Van Buyten goal.
A 3-1 win at home to Latvia and a 4-1 success in San Marino left the Belgians in pole position ahead of their return match with Scotland in Brussels. A hard-fought game was ultimately settled 2-0 in Belgium's favour thanks to a first-half Nicko van Kerckhoven goal and a late strike from Goor. The result meant that the Scots were effectively eliminated from the Group Six running, while Belgium needed only a draw from their final group game away to Croatia to secure automatic passage to Korea./Japan.
Wilmots seals qualification
A late Alen Boksic goal shattered Belgium's dreams of automatic qualification, condemning them to a two-legged play-off against the highly-fancied Czech Republic and sent all the old Belgian doubts bubbling to the surface again. With Wilmots out injured, the Czechs were warm favourites for the play-off, although a Verheyen strike gave Belgium a slender 1-0 advantage after the first leg in Brussels, An outstanding rearguard performance in the return in Prague was made complete when Wilmots, a late substitute despite not being fully fit, slotted an 86th-minute penalty to secure a 2-0 aggregate victory. In many ways it was the most fitting of finales - Wilmots' eight qualification goals and powerhouse performances having done more than any other player to keep the Red Devils' World Cup dream alive.
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