As settings go for the biggest match in a nation’s footballing history, the Azteca in Mexico City has to be one of the finest. For the Red Devils of Belgium, this would be the scene for their first, and so far only, appearance in a World Cup semi-final.
But in that clash in the World Cup of 1986, they were stepping into the arena to take on a seemingly unstoppable force. They may have been one step away from a place in the final itself, but as the 11 men wearing the red of Belgium took to the field, they were about to march headlong into a team that was touched by genius: Diego Maradona’s Argentina.
For a nation of 11 million, reaching such lofty heights is not something that comes along very often. To do it having come through some epic encounters along the way, and then to hurtle into the seemingly inexorable ascent of Maradona into the realms of footballing deities, was the stuff of both dreams and nightmares. No matter how the next 90 minutes would go, it was a fitting stage for a fine generation of players; a blend of the experience and grit of those remaining from a decent showing at the 1982 World Cup, and a vibrant, skilful young generation of players coming through.
It had been quite a road to get to this date with Diego and destiny. The twists and turns of their campaign had begun even before Belgium made it to Mexico. They finished runners-up in their qualification group behind Poland, only on goals scored, missing out on the only automatic place from the four-team section. This position was largely a self-inflicted one having contrived to lose 2-0 at home to Albania in disappointing fashion.
This left them facing a playoff against their neighbours to the north; an umpteenth meeting with the Netherlands. Belgium, at the time, had been riding the crest of a wave. Runners-up in the 1980 European Championship, they went on to qualify for the 1982 World Cup, eliminating the Netherlands in the process, and then going on to beat the holders Argentina in the opening match. Two years later, they narrowly missed out on a semi-final place at Euro 84.
Belgian football was in a healthy state, with an effective blend of youth and experience. Players like Jean-Marie Pfaff, Eric Gerets and Jan Ceulemans were complemented by the skills and exuberance of the likes of the exciting new talent of Enzo Scifo. Marshalling it all was the wily guidance of the vastly experienced Guy Thys.
A 1-0 home victory in the first leg of the playoff left things nicely balanced before the return match on a freezing cold November night in the Netherlands. The match remained tight throughout, but when the Dutch went two goals ahead, all had seemed lost for the Belgians.
Read | Jan Ceulemans and the route to Belgium’s greatest
With barely five minutes remaining, as the Dutch nerves began to fray with visibly increasing tension, up stepped the most unlikely of goal scorers. The young centre-back Georges Grun had come on as a substitute after the interval, and in the frantic late exchanges, as planning and structure was replaced by desperation and hope, Grun had been moved up front as the Red Devils lay siege to Hans van Breukelen’s goal.
His late header meant that Belgium would sneak past their neighbours on away goals to claim one of the last places in Mexico. It remains one of the most famous goals in Belgian history, such were its implications and consequences for both sides. For Grun, the unlikely hero, it would be the defining moment of his career.
But there was no escaping that Belgium had scraped into the World Cup, and despite a relatively benign group draw, expectations were modest at best. Once in Mexico they again failed to hit the right note, and began in dispiriting style, showing little prospect of the burgeoning potential that was bubbling under the surface. Their group stage performance was distinctly underwhelming, as the undoubtedly talented squad struggled to get into their rhythm.
The fate of the draw they were handed meant they began their World Cup in the same grandiose setting they would eventually perform on for their match with Maradona and co. That was still more than three weeks away, however, as the Belgians, in their white change kit, took on the hosts Mexico in a crackling Azteca atmosphere.
Ghosts of World Cups past were reawakened as many a Belgian mind went back to their final group match in the 1970 World Cup in which they had lost out to Mexico amidst refereeing controversy. This time it was always going to be a tricky opening for the Belgians given the hosts’ desperation to please their adoring and demanding fans – and so it proved.
There was nothing controversial about this 2-1 defeat, however, other than the fact that they ought to have lost by more. It was far from an ideal start, particularly given both goals conceded came from weak Belgian defending, which put Mexico 2-0 ahead in the first half. Forward Erwin Vandenbergh did pull one back just on half-time, but they failed dismally to build on that in the second half in what was an inauspicious opening.
The performance could best be described as feeble giving no hint whatsoever of what was to come for Belgium. Thys, however, resisted the urge to make wholesale changes, making only two for the now vital second group match against Iraq in Toluca.
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Led by the marauding Ceulemans, they did manage a more focused display up to a point. He set up the opening goal for Enzo Scifo with a typically bullish bluster through the heart of the Iraqi midfield; Scifo’s finish displaying the class he had become renowned for. Moments later, Iraq’s robust approach presented a second for Belgium from the penalty spot, and their campaign seemed to belatedly be off and running.
But some misplaced complacency appeared to take over thereafter, allowing Iraq a fine goal not long after they’d been reduced to ten men. A 2-1 win it may have been in the end, but there were still more questions than answers for the sluggish, disjointed Belgians.
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. But the vagaries of the 24-team World Cup meant that they had gone into this game knowing anything other than a heavy defeat would send them through as one of the best third-placed teams.
As it was, a fine strike from Franky Vercauteren showed some signs of improvement, but nonetheless, the defensive frailties were most decidedly still present. Belgium would progress to the last 16, but nobody was expecting them to make any further inroads, particularly in view of who they would face next.
Waiting for them in the knock-out rounds was a USSR side that was heading towards something of a peak. Two years away from reaching the final of Euro 88, this was a side full of talent, flair and goals. They played with a cohesive, swashbuckling swagger, in a Dynamo Kyiv-inspired Soviet interpretation of Total Football. In Igor Belanov they had one of the stars of the tournament so far, with most observers expecting them to be able to overwhelm the misfiring Belgians.
Belgium went into this clash missing Erwin Vandenbergh and René Vandereycken, who had both returned home injured, and Thys also decided to bring in a few fresh faces in an effort to shake his lethargic team from their slumbers. But it was the experience of the tall, strong Ceulemans who had the greatest impact on Belgium’s performance, alongside a belated rediscovery of composure at the back from sweeper Michel Renquin and 20-year-old Stéphane Demol.
For all the improvement in Belgium’s display in León, they would benefit from a huge slice of fortune in what would become one of the classic matches of the tournament. Belanov had given the Soviets a first-half lead with typical flourish, only for Scifo to equalise after the break. For all Ceulemans’ pivotal potency going forwards, he was at fault for the Soviets’ second goal, losing possession cheaply in midfield. A few slick moves later, Belanov had scored again to make it 2-1.
Read | The era-defining game between France and West Germany in 1986
With only a quarter of an hour remaining, Belgium’s moment of good fortune arrived. Demol played a hopeful punt forward, finding Ceulemans all alone, seemingly beyond the Soviet defence. With the now static defence all appealing for an offside that would never come, Ceulemans duly scored to level the scores once more and make amends for his earlier blunder. To add to the apparent injustice, the linesman had indeed raised his flag when Ceulemans received the ball, only to put it down again, with the referee happy to allow the goal.
For Belgium, this moment was so much more than just a goal. It was also the point where Belgium, so unspectacular up until this point, began to really believe, and the USSR, distracted and distraught, lost their way. In extra-time there was only one likely winner, and two more goals for Belgium saw them through to the quarter-finals.
Not only did the controversial incident turn this game but it was the turning point in Belgium’s whole campaign. Suddenly from the stuttering opening performances, they were brimming with confidence. It had been one of the most entertaining matches of an entertaining World Cup. As described by Brian Clough on punditry duty, “The continuity of the match was incredible. It went from end to end, side to side, and nobody was rolling over.” To have gone toe to toe with one of the teams of the tournament and come out victorious meant that for the first time, belief began to course through Belgian veins.
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 on 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.
Read | Dissecting Diego Maradona’s astounding goal against Belgium in 1986
The Red Devils were now in uncharted territory, stepping into the unknown of a World Cup semi-final. It is their misfortune that they were to face an Argentina side that was knocking on the door of destiny. This may have been Belgium’s finest hour, but it was no repeat of the previous World Cup clash between the two in the opening game of 1982, when Belgium had surprised the then-holders with a 1-0 win.
This time they were up against it from the off. 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 Argentine territory, taking on a team of talent that was a level beyond anything they’d faced so far.
Into the second half, Argentina would take that level up another notch or two to put things well beyond the befuddled Belgians. Maradona, having run rings around England in the previous round, now repeated the trick twice over in sublime style. The first came when Maradona dissected the defence to latch onto a delightful Jorge Burruchaga pass and flicked the ball past the onrushing Pfaff.
Then, within a handful of minutes, he scored another after a spellbinding, zigzagging run when seemingly surrounded by the tight marking of the defence, leaving all who trailed in his wake twisted, turned and fabulously flummoxed. It was a strike that, if it hadn’t been for the mesmerising goal against England a few days earlier, would now be remembered as one of the very finest of World Cup goals.
The game was up, and the Belgians knew it. Try as they might, they were at the end of their road, incapable of threatening Argentina and indeed fortunate to only lose by two. It was, in the end, a step too far. As Brian Glanville noted in his Story of the World Cup, they perhaps had “lived beyond their means, exceeded all their hopes.”
It had been an astonishing achievement given how it had begun. Out of the necessity of injuries to several of their established players, a youthful vigour took their place and drove the nation to unprecedented heights. But in the end, there was little they could do in the face-off for footballing immortality.
By Aidan Williams @yad_williams