Belgium … yeah.
Admittedly, I’m drawing a blank here, too, not unlike Colin Farrell’s character in In Bruges when he finds out he’s going to spend some time in the quaint medieval city located within one of the Low Countries. Traditionally, when the United States National Team takes on a European soccer power we’re all able to come up with a bunch of dumb jokes — English people have bad teeth! — since hyper, ‘This is ‘Merica’ patriotism is acceptable within the context of the World Cup.
When you think Belgium you stereotypically think waffles(*), chocolate and beer — three things many Americans enjoy, even though we all know a cold can of PBR is approximately 568 times better than a hand-crafted Belgian ale brewed within a 17th century monastery regardless of what the Untappd app says. Some people, for whatever the reason, probably hate Tin-Tin and his dopey cartoon adventures. On a much more serious note, anyone who’s studied European history certainly has his or her stomach turn reading about King Leopold’s atrocious policies enforced within the Belgian Congo.
(*) According to the crack Wikipedia fact-checking department “Belgian Waffles” don’t exist in Belgium.
Through blind luck after the France 2-0 win over Nigeria ended I found myself watching the 1994 classic video game adaptation of Street Fighter to avoid SportsCenter prattle until the Germany-Algeria game kicked off. My red (white and blue) blood boiled watching Belgian action hero Jean Claude Van Damme playing Guile — the game’s all-American Army hero.
But yeah, it’s hard to work up much enmity, let alone a reaction to Belgium on face value. Playing anyone in the Round of 16 of the World Cup should be hype enough in-and-of itself.
The Round of 16 match in Salvador, Brazil, breaks the trip down memory lane for the National Team and Jurgen Klinsmann. Game No. 1 vs. Ghana was all about revenge for what happened in 2006 and 2010. Portugal represented a look back to 2002 — and a chance to knock the smirk off Cristiano Ronaldo’s face. Finally last week’s game with Germany was a reunion for Klinsmann and a chance for the U.S. to move past Torsten Frings handball or dispiriting loss in 1998. (Technically, yes, the U.S. once upon a time beat Belgium at the 1930 World Cup, but it’s hard to fathom very many folks in Brussels and Antwerp are thinking about that match today.)
Unlike the previous two trips to the knockout rounds for the United States in the modern era, Belgium is just another opponent, one that will field 11 players without any tangible connection to the United States or its soccer history. This isn’t 2002 and the baggage that came along with playing bitter rival Mexico in South Korea, nor is it what Ghana represented in 2010.
Belgium entered the World Cup as fifth-favorite according to the bookmakers, but maintains a shred of its darkhorse status. Despite it’s current crop of talent, Belgium is not a historically insurmountable foe like, say, a Spain, Italy or Germany. Unlike it’s neighbors, the Netherlands, with hatchetman Nigel de Jong there isn’t a player on Belgium who prompts disgust and abject, universal hate. Realistically if the United States wasn’t involved in this game, a lot of Americans would pull for Belgium in this round.
So that’s probably the best way to look at this match, as 90 or potentially 120 minutes of soccer. No more, no less. Waffle photoshop memes be damned.
As we’ve seen throughout this decade (and history) the United States owns the uncanny ability to play up or play down to the caliber of its opponent.
If there’s a “big picture” to zone in on here, it has nothing to do with Belgium as the opponent, rather what a win here and a quarterfinals appearance would mean for the National Team. Another three days of hype leading into a game on Fourth of July weekend would be huge and ratchet up the U.S. bandwagon to unprecedented levels — and in turn make overnight billionaires to anyone who owns bandanna futures. No, it’s not going to make MLS more popular than the NFL any time soon, but it’s a moment that U.S. Soccer rarely gets.
Remember, nothing comes easy and the World Cup can end in the blink of an eye. There is no parachute or soft landing. Another couple days of soccer patriotism will be fun, but let’s get there first by beating Belgium by any means necessary. Don’t make the mistake of thinking how the U.S. matches up with Argentina and Lionel Messi — until the final whistle today. (Trust me.)
Hold on to your butts.
The big change here is Geoff Cameron returns to the lineup, sending Kyle Beckerman to the bench. Cameron stands 6-foot-3, while Beckerman is only 5-foot-10. This could be a smart move by Klinsmann with Alex Witsel 6-foot-1 and Marouane Fellaini 6-foot-4. Fresh legs after all the running of the group stage is probably a good thing, too.
Head games: Jurgen Klinsmann moaned about an Algerian ref being assigned to the match because a) he can speak French to the Belgian players and b) the U.S. eliminated Algeria in 2010. Gamesmanship? Planting the seeds of doubt? Giving the American fans a reason to complain about the officiating even more? (Fingers and toes crossed the ref doesn’t decide this match one way or the other.)
Hamstrung: Jozy Altidore is “ready” for the game after suffering a hamstring injury June 18 vs. Ghana. It’s hard to see Altidore factoring into this game very much. Klinsmann isn’t starting him in a potentially 120-minute match. Even as a substitute, how much is a less-than 100 percent Altidore going to contribute or trouble the Belgian defense? Moving to a 4-5-1 with Dempsey as the lone striker suited the U.S. well enough vs. Portugal and creates more chances to keep possession so long as Graham Zusi is on the field.
Call me cynical, but I doubt the Belgium team is going to quiver inside its boots at the site of Altidore coming into the game, either.
Late show: All three of Belgium’s game-winners have come after the 78th minute. The U.S. got a winner from John Brooks vs. Ghana in the 85th and then allowed one in the 95th to Portugal. Small sample, sure, but seems like a pattern to me. Don’t plan on exhaling completely until the final whistle.
Waffle maker: Perhaps a story for another day, but I thought this piece on Belgium’s youth development overhaul was interesting. Belgium, a nation of 11 million roughly the size of South Carolina, found it difficult to implement nationwide change going to show how difficult, if not impossible, it will be to change the U.S. soccer system from the ground up.
Lottery ticket: The standard operating procedure about penalty kicks to decide games is that they’re some sort of “cruel lottery.” Yes, there is a lot of randomness in penalty kicks but there are also enough trends that smart coaches and goalkeepers will study trends to get some kind of an edge. Via the New York Times, Klinsmann said the team has prepared for penalties as best it can.
In 2006 German keeper Jens Lehmann famously hid notes in his socks about the Argentina penalty takers.
Tim Howard won’t have anything tucked away in his uniform about Belgium, but he’ll certainly have studied up. As will his counterpart Thibaut Courtois. It’s rare when the U.S. enters a game where it doesn’t have the better goalkeeper on the field, but that is the case today. That’s no knock on Howard and his ability to make the heroic save, but Courtois is the real deal.
Belgian player whose name you’ll be cursing if the U.S. lose: Divock Origi. Eden Hazard is Belgium’s “best” player, but the U.S. coped with Cristiano Ronaldo on the left wing. I’d be more worried about Hazard drawing a penalty than scoring in open play. Origi is only 19 and mostly unknown outside Belgium and France. He scored the winner vs. Russia in the 88th minute after coming on for Romelu Lukaku and will start today. Perhaps Origi develops into a star player, but he could also be the guy years from now American fans look back at like Michael Bluth saying, “Him?”
Outlook: A lot of this game comes down to Belgium, which hasn’t wowed during its first three games. A year ago in Cleveland, Belgium won 4-2 in a friendly, although the Red Devils had Christian Benteke for that match and Hazard didn’t feature. If anything, that match means there should be chances for goals in this encounter in Salvador. Count on this to be a fairly even game, one which won’t be for the faint of heart. Let’s all hope the U.S. has something left after traveling all across the hottest places in Brazil during the group stage. … US 1, Belgium 1 (US wins in penalty kicks).