Kevin de Bruyne said a big factor in Belgium’s recent rise to global prominence in soccer is the fact this generation was the first to send its players in great numbers to top-flight foreign leagues to play and learn.
On the 1986 Belgium team, the first to play in a World Cup semifinal, 20 of the 22 players competed for club teams in the country’s domestic league. This year’s team, by contrast, has just one player — defender Leander Dendoncker — playing at home.
“Belgium has a lot of talent but until 15 years ago, nobody was playing outside of Belgium,” said de Bruyne, who has played in the German Bundesliga and the English Premier League. “Then (Vincent) Kompany and (Marouane) Fellaini went and others thought ‘let's sign more Belgium players.’ And that has helped.”
Belgium made it back to the World Cup semifinals this summer before losing 1-0 to France on Tuesday. But that doesn’t detract from the progress of a national team that reached the final eight and final four of the last two World Cups, sandwiched around a quarterfinal appearance in the 2016 European Championship.
Belgium had gone a dozen years without even qualifying for either tournament before 2014.
De Bruyne said playing abroad not only exposes players to a higher level of talent but it introduces them to different philosophies and styles of play. His career, he said, benefited greatly from his two years under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City.
“Pep has helped me to play better as an individual,” De Bruyne said. “His style is very different and the game becomes very easy once you are able to adapt to it.”
Now de Bruyne and his teammates have to put the loss to France behind them and prepare for Saturday’s third-place game against England, a match which figures to be the final World Cup appearance for many players.
"If we can finish third, it's the best-ever result at the World Cup for Belgium," said Kompany, who spoke to reporters after the semifinal in English, French, Dutch and German. "People had a blast at home; they had fun. People have been celebrating and you shouldn't forget that — that's what this tournament is about as well."
Coach Roberto Martinez agreed. The disappointment of not winning the World Cup will linger, he said, but it’s important his players leave Russia with a win, not following two losses.
“The focus of the group was to try to win the tournament,” he said. “It wasn’t about having a good tournament or being happy being in the top four. The opportunity of being in the final was the only focus we had.
“[But] these players deserve to finish on a high.”
Jill Ellis, coach of the U.S. women’s national team, flew to Moscow from a vacation in the Mediterranean to attend Wednesday’s semifinal between Croatia and England, her homeland’s first appearance in a World Cup semifinal since 1990.
A naturalized U.S. citizen, Ellis was born in Portsmouth, England, but because there was no organized soccer for girls there, she didn’t get a chance to play the sport until she was 15, after her family moved to Virginia.
Ellis also met with a handful of U.S. reporters on Wednesday and said she’s hopeful next summer’s Women’s World Cup in France will include video review, which FIFA used for the first time in this summer’s tournament.
"I can't see them not having it. I think it would be a little bit insulting if we weren't afforded the same opportunity," said Ellis, who coached the U.S. to a world championship in 2015. "There's too much at stake to not have it, and I think our game, our passion, our drive, our motivation is at the same level as the men."