By Robert-Jan Bartunek
A rare case of unity is breaking out in Belgium, where the country is about to take over at the top of FIFA’s world rankings after winning their final Euro 2016 qualifier against Israel on Tuesday.
But while the modest-sized nation celebrates, there is widespread doubt about the value of the honour, which many argue skews the real strengths of teams.
The Red Devils will clinch the number one spot when the contentious rankings are published in November, following second-placed Germany’s loss to Ireland and Ecuador’s surprise win over current leaders Argentina in the past week.
“Becoming number one was something the whole country had been looking forward to,” said Pieter Jan Calcoen, football journalist for daily Het Laatste Nieuws.
Wednesday’s newspaper front pages were full of pictures of the national squad celebrating – a rare unifying feature in a country otherwise divided between French and Dutch speakers.
“Devils party, Orange in deep mourning,” wrote broadsheet De Morgen, referring to the failure of neighbours and arch-rivals the Netherlands to qualify for Euro 2016.
The FIFA ranking, which takes into account results, the opponents, the region and the importance of the games, has been criticised for not reflecting a team’s strength and excessively rewarding weaker teams who are on a winning streak.
Germany fan Jorg Schroeder was not impressed.
“Belgium top of the FIFA rankings? Well that’s no surprise if you consider the FIFA mess… I wouldn’t say Germany deserved to be top, especially after our mediocre qualification campaign. But Belgium? Come on,” he told Reuters.
Belgium, a country of 11 million people, are the second nation since the system’s introduction in 1992 to take top spot in FIFA’s rankings without having won a World Cup or European Championship.
The Dutch, who were there for a month in 2011, at least won the Euros in 1988 and have reached the World Cup final three times. The other former number ones are Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, Italy and Spain.
Belgium’s rise to the top has been spectacular, from 71st, among the likes of Zambia and Uzbekistan, to their current third place.
Benefiting from a vast pool of talent, including Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, midfield wizard Eden Hazard and Manchester City’s record signing, Kevin De Bruyne, Belgium reached the quarter-finals at the 2014 World Cup and climbed to fourth in the rankings.
For Euro 2016, bookmakers William Hill and Coral rate Belgium as fourth-favourites, behind Germany, France and Spain.
“I think the expectations are for Belgium to get to the semi-finals. Anything else would be a disappointment,” Calcoen said.
Belgium’s manager, Marc Wilmots, and his players are less effusive about being ranked the best in the world but acknowledge that their journey has been something special with captain Vincent Kompany proud of the team.
“I’ve won prizes in my career, and this isn’t a prize as such, but today the Dutch are out and we’re number one,” he told reporters with a smile.