Euro 2024 team guides part 17: Belgium

This article is part of the Guardian’s Euro 2024 Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the 24 countries who qualified – theguardian.com is running previews from two countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 14 June.

Prospects

At the time of writing Belgium have yet to lose a game under Domenico Tedesco, who has been in charge since March 2023. In their qualifying group, the Red Devils collected an impressive 20 points from a possible 24 in a group that also included Austria and Sweden. However, their biggest scalp under Tedesco came in his second game when they won 3-2 away against Germany.

The German-Italian coach prefers a 4-3-3 formation, which means that the three-man defence utilised by his predecessor, Roberto Martínez, is a thing of the past. Despite impressive results Belgium are not among the favourites for the tournament, mainly because many members of the so-called Golden Generation have retired from international football or retired full stop.

Compared to the squad for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, Eden Hazard, Axel Witsel and Toby Alderweireld are just three of the players no longer involved. Tedesco saw his chance to give the squad an injection of energy and has been calling up players such as Johan Bakayoko (21, PSV Eindhoven), Dodi Lukebakio (26, Sevilla) and Orel Mangala (26, Lyon), among others.

There will be one notable absentee at Euro 2024 and that is Thibaut Courtois. The Real Madrid goalkeeper, unlike some of his compatriots, had not planned to announce his retirement after the World Cup but has fallen out with Tedesco. After a dispute with the coach regarding the captain’s armband, Courtois accused the national coach of a “breach of trust”.

At the end of 2023 Courtois announced he would not be fit for the European Championship finals tournament and ruled himself out. Then he returned for Real Madrid to help them seal La Liga and victory in the Champions League final. His absence threatens to hang over the Red Devils in Germany.

The coach

At 38, Domenico Tedesco will be the second youngest national coach at the European Championship after Germany’s Julian Nagelsmann (36). The two youngsters even trained together at the famous Hennes Weisweiler Academy and were considered top of the class. “He made good PowerPoint presentations and could sell himself well,” says a fellow student. With his high-pressure football and decision to bring in new faces, Tedesco has revived enthusiasm around the national team. The fact that he is more straightforward than his predecessor, Roberto Martínez, has also gone down well with the Belgian public. Tedesco must hope his stubbornness in the case of Courtois does not come back to haunt him.

The icon

More than ever the success of the Belgian national team this summer will depend on Kevin De Bruyne’s form. No wonder Tedesco made him captain. “He is one of the best midfielders in the world,” the coach says. “He is like a mirror of this team. If De Bruyne plays well, the whole team plays well.” The Manchester City playmaker has become a Premier League legend and helped City to win the league again this season, although he would admit it was not his best campaign, partly due to a hamstring injury. At previous tournaments he has been known to irritate his teammates because of the demands he makes of them. Belgium must hope the 32-year-old shows his best version – on and off the pitch – in Germany.

Kevin De Bruyne (centre) will be looking to put his hamstring injury behind him and play to his full potential in Germany. Photograph: Virginie Lefour/Belga/AFP/Getty Images

One to watch

Johan Bakayoko was handed his debut in Domenico Tedesco’s first game in March 2023, a 3-0 away win against Sweden, and has not looked back, featuring in every game since then at the time of writing. The right-sided attacker had a superb season at club level with PSV Eindhoven, culminating in them winning the league. Paris Saint-Germain and Brentford are only two of the clubs who have tried to sign the 21-year-old in the past, but there is a chance he could move this summer, especially if he takes Euro 2024 by storm.

The maverick

Belgians are not known for being loudmouths or trouble-seeking so riot-causing Red Devils are quite rare (well, since Radja Nainggolan’s international retirement at least). However, one person who never minces his words is Thomas Meunier. The 32-year-old right-back made enemies right, left and centre during his time in France with PSG and was one of the few Red Devils to speak out about the Courtois case. “Thibaut just needs to apologise, simple as that,” he said.

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The spine

Apart from in goal, there is at least one experienced player in each line with the necessary tournament experience. Koen Casteels is expected to start in goal. In defence, Jan Vertonghen will have to take responsibility and show his younger teammates the ropes. In midfield, De Bruyne, especially after the retirement of Eden Hazard, is the man who has to create the chances and dictate play. Up front there is a third survivor of the Golden Generation in Romelu Lukaku – he is already Belgium’s all-time male top scorer and only wants to cement his place in history still further.

Probable starting XI

Celebrity fan

The singer and rapper Stromae is one of the most famous artists in Belgium and a supporter of the Red Devils. In 2014 he was the artist behind Ta fête, the official Belgian national team song for the World Cup in Brazil. And should the Belgians go all the way and win the tournament on 14 July? Alors on danse (so we dance).

Culinary delight

A typical Belgian football snack is the mitraillette: a sandwich containing a hamburger or sausage as well as french fries and a sauce. The mitraillette is not only delicious, it also offers the advantage that you only need one hand to hold the various treats contained within. For those who like some balance, vegetables can be added. But not too many.

Belgium team guide written by Yanko Beeckman for Nieuwsblad

The Guardian

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