RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — First came boos and whistles. And then, a Brazilian taunt cascaded down the stands of the Maracana stadium — “Little team, your place is in the second division.”
The Belgians had felt honored to play at the famous stadium but the local fans didn’t exactly return the love during Belgium’s struggling 1-0 win over Russia at the World Cup.
One day later, the Belgium squad was cherishing the two victories that have ensured their passage to knockout phase. But after much pre-tournament hype, fans will still be looking for more. How about a little style?
“There will always be something to complain about,” said Belgium coach Marc Wilmots and noted that fans of already eliminated Spain and England had more reason to be glum.
“Pretty, pretty, pretty make no one happy. We need to show efficiency. And we did exactly that,” said Wilmots.
So far only the Netherlands and France have been able to combine beauty with ruthless efficiency. Belgium has been in the class of Lionel Messi’s Argentina, doing just enough to win.
For Belgium, this World Cup is the moment to shed a reputation stretching back over four decades of thriving only on super defensive play before scoring a single goal to steal the victory.
With classy players — from playmaker Eden Hazard to central defender Vincent Kompany and midfielder Kevin De Bruyne — it was time for a fundamental change.
But as much as Belgium impressed during the qualification campaign, it has been underwhelming in Brazil.
Dominated over long stretches by Russia on Sunday and trailing Algeria for much of its opener, Belgium looked like a scrambling team instead of one dictating play.
Two late goals gave it a come-from-behind 2-1 win against Algeria and an 88th-minute strike a 1-0 win over Russia which secured passage into the next round.
Twice, Wilmots argued, the opposition had to be worn down with possession play before the breakthrough goals could come. While it hasn’t been pretty or particularly entertaining, it has delivered the points to advance.
Wilmots assured that the best was yet to come though.
“The tournament starts for real now,” he said. “We are in the second round.”
A lof of that beauty is supposed to come off the feet of Eden Hazard. So far, he has waited until very late to produce the goods, when many neutral fans had already averted their gaze from Belgium’s plodding play.
“We weren*t at our usual 100 percent,” Hazard acknowledged. “With time, we will try produce better matches” and, in the end “develop more beautiful games.”
The only problem, of course, is that in the knockout phase, efficiency becomes even more essential since there never may be a way back into the tournament. That alone could stifle creativity.
Wilmots only needs to remember his last campaign as player, when Belgium lost in the second round against Brazil at the 2002 World Cup.
“We played beautiful football then. But we were quickly eliminated. I know what I prefer,” he said.
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