2023 in sport: An (almost) perfect year for Belgium’s Red Devils
The departure of Roberto Martinez was expected to signal the start of a difficult period for Belgium's men's football team. But his successor, Domenico Tedesco, has made it a smooth transition. His first year in charge has been a positive one, albeit with some caveats.
Replacing a manager is never easy, but in the case of Martinez it was particularly difficult. Not only did the Spaniard manage Belgium for more than six years, he was also the team's technical director.
In February 2023, less than two months after Belgium's disastrous performance in the World Cup in Qatar and Martinez's resignation, Tedesco was announced as the new coach. It was a bold choice, as the German-Italian had only started his managerial career in 2017 and had never managed a national team before.
And yet, with eight wins, two draws and no defeats, Tedesco's first year in charge has been nothing short of exceptional. The Red Devils qualified for Euro 2024 with ease as group winners. The last Belgian coach who finished his debut year without a defeat was Raymond Goethals in 1968.
These results are all the more impressive considering that many of the players from the "golden generation" have now retired. Tedesco has had to rely on a host of debutants and young talents to fill the void, and they have largely delivered.
That doesn't mean his tenure has been without its problems. For one thing, the quality of Belgium's opponents has not been high. In a group that included Sweden, Azerbaijan, Estonia and Austria, only the Austrians - ranked 24th in the FIFA world rankings - posed a real challenge. The Red Devils have yet to face a high-quality opponent in a competitive match.
Another potential problem is Belgium's defence. Matches against higher-ranked opponents have been high-scoring affairs. The away game against Austria and the friendly against Germany exposed Belgium's weaknesses at the back. However, excellent attacking performances made up for that, and the Red Devils ended up winning both games 3-2.
Finally, there is the issue of Thibaut Courtois. According to Tedesco, the goalkeeper refused to travel with the squad to face Estonia in June because he had not been selected as captain for a previous match. Courtois, meanwhile, told Sporza he didn't get enough respect in the national team. He has recently confirmed he will not play at Euro 2024 due to an anterior cruciate ligament injury that he sustained in August.
It remains to be seen how Tedesco will deal with these issues in the coming months. More than anything else, his future will depend on the results of Euro 2024. The Red Devils have been fortunate to be drawn against manageable opposition in the group stage, which they are expected to win. It is unrealistic to see Belgium as favourites for the tournament, but leading the team to the quarter-finals - as Marc Wilmots did in 2016 and Martinez did in 2021 - should be doable.
Tedesco himself is keeping expectations in check. "On paper, we are favourites [for the group stage]," he said after the tournament draw in December. "But I've been in football long enough to know that something on paper doesn't always translate to the pitch."
© BELGA PHOTO VIRGINIE LEFOUR