Its peak was Mexico 1986

Belgian football left its mark at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, going all the way to the semi-finals.

Belgium, a federal monarchy, straddling Germanic and Latin Europe in the western part of the mainland, is today witnessing a clear division between the Dutch-speaking (Flemish) north and the French-speaking south. Capital Brussels, located in the middle, has emerged as a progressive, bilingual international hub — an alien entity compared to the rest of the country.

The two halves of Belgium have always been very diverse — preferring separate newspapers, television shows, music and almost everything else. Thus naturally, this narrative runs down to the football fields too, and currently teams from East and West Flanders make up the greatest numbers in the country’s two elite divisions. Seven teams from the region play in the Belgian top tier now.

However, right after the formation of the national football association in 1895, it was FC Liegois, a club from the French-speaking Wallonia region, which won the first official league title. But Anderlecht, the club from the national-capital region, has over the years dominated the local game, winning the League a record 33 times. FC Brugge — located in Bruges, the capital and largest city of West Flanders — comes a distant second with 13 titles.

Belgium, as a country, played its first official international match against France on May 1, 1904. The game played at the Stade Vivierd’Oie (Goose Pond Stadium) in Uccle, Belgium, was attended by 1,500 spectators, and ended in a 3-3 draw. The two federations were also in the forefront in the creation of FIFA.

The national team enjoyed early success, humbling many European bigwigs and its three consecutive victories in 1906 — over France (5-0) and Holland (5-0 and 3-2) — earned it the moniker “The Red Devils” from journalist Pierre Walckiers.

Continuing to impress, at the 1920 summer Olympics at Antwerp, the side won gold as the host. The win, though, came under dubious circumstances. Its opponent, Czechoslovakia, refused to take the field for the second half play, protesting against poor refereeing.

The national squad did hit a trough after these initial successes. Belgium started the 1954 Swiss World Cup as one of the favourites, boasting a strong defensive formation. It drew the first group game 4-4 against a strong English side, but Italy had the measure of it and breezed past 4-1 in the final league game.

After years of lull, the team dazzled on the European stage at the 1980 continental championship, finishing second. Coached by Guy Thys, Belgium broke its defensive shackles and exhibited an attacking, attractive style of play. It drew two, against England and Italy, and won one, against Spain, in the group games and topped Group B to secure a spot in the final. However, the mighty West Germany was too big a hurdle to cross and Belgium lost the final 2-1.

Six years later, the “golden generation” of Belgian football left its mark at the World Cup in Mexico, going all the way to the semi-finals. Midfielder Jan Ceulemans (selected for the tournament’s All-Star XI) and playmaker Enzo Scifo (voted the Best Young Player of the Tournament) were the stars of that particular squad and the team accounted for heavyweights like Soviet Union (4-3 after extra-time) and Spain (6-5 on penalties after the game had ended 1-1 after regulation and extra-time) in the knockout rounds. But, Belgium’s luck ran out in the semi-final, losing 2-0 to the eventual champion Argentina. Diego Maradona scoring both the goals.

Scifo dazzled again four years later in Italy and Belgium was unlucky to get knocked out by England in the second round, conceding a late goal in the second half of extra-time. Though the team reached the round of 16 in the 1994 and 2002 World Cups, the performance declined thereafter. It has failed to qualify for the EURO and the World Cup since then.

* * * Two gifted players

Jan Anna Gumaar Ceulemans, a technically gifted midfielder, is the most capped (96) Belgian international. Nicknamed "Captain Courageous" for his heroics at the 1986 World Cup, Ceulemans started his professional career with local club Lierse in 1974, graduating from its youth wing. The player, however, gained recognition following his move to Club Brugge in 1978, where he stayed till his retirement in 1992. Famously turning down an offer from Italian giant AC Milan, Ceulemans scored 191 goals in 407 matches for Brugge, winning four national League titles.

Playmaker Enzo Scifo, nicknamed the "Little Pele" was the fulcrum of a Belgian team that impressed at the 1986 and '90 World Cups.

Gifted with outstanding vision, a supreme passing ability and a keen sense for goals, he was a classic No. 10, and was instrumental in Anderlecht winning consecutive League championships between 1985 and 1987. In a career blighted by injuries, Scifo scored 18 international goals (84 appearances) and 121 club goals (478). He finally retired in 2002 after being diagnosed with chronic arthritis.