CAPE TOWN – While most of the pre-tournament favourites are limping along, and struggling for form, Belgium have been ruthless in dispatching both of Panama 3-0 and Tunisia 5-2.
So far, so good, and they are looking really strong at Russia 2018. But, and it’s perhaps something football in South Africa needs to take particular note of, it wasn’t always this way with Belgium.
In 1998, they crashed out in the group stages in France; in 2000, as hosts of the European Championships, they were dismal; and at the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan, they continued to meander along in mediocrity.
So, after the 2002 tournament, Belgium decided that was it. They knew they had to change the country’s football approach and do things differently. Belgium then set about modifying the way the sport is organised and coached. They radically altered their coaching and development structures.
Aspects such as innovation, technical skills, creativity, football at pace and so much more were given priority. The idea was to produce fully-rounded, intelligent footballers.
More than that, the federation also invested heavily in the country’s development structures, with everybody - officials, clubs and coaches - all on the same page. But, and this is very important, especially in a South African context, they also knew that success doesn’t come quickly; success demands diligence, hard work and, above all, patience.
Belgium’s moment of change was in 2002; by 2007, they were still about 70th on the Fifa rankings; now, in 2018, they are the third-best football nation in the world. After placing their football on a different path, it has taken the Belgians 16 years to get to where they are: and look at the quality of the talent they have available.
Consider South Africa - African champions in 1996 and, ever since, on a downward spiral. As it is always said: the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result; sounds a bit like football in South Africa.
* The Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system used at the 2018 World Cup in Russia has its critics and supporters. While there are issues, overall I am of the opinion that, in the end, it will offer more positives than negatives.
As it stands, VAR is able to intervene in four areas: goals, penalties, red cards and mistaken identity.
We’ve seen all of this at work already at Russia 2018: like the soft Neymar penalty which was rightly overturned and the yellow card shown to Peru’s Edison Flores was changed because the foul was actually committed by his teammate Pedro Aquino.
But the problem, for me, has to do with the consistency of its application - during Saturday night’s Germany-Sweden game, Jerome Boateng clearly fouled Sweden’s Marcus Berg early on in the match. Surely, it was a penalty: where was VAR?
* Saturday night was yet another reminder that football can be a cruel, cruel game after Germany netted a last-gasp winner; Sweden had done so much, and worked so hard, they deserved something from the match, but it was not to be.