Perspectives from Enemy Territory

FORWARD: I know that this site is dedicated to my American Football Team. However, given that we are over a month away from the opening of training camp, 2+ plus months away from determining if OB1, Fitzpartrick, Clowney, et al can actually exceed last year's win total and given that I have seen World Cup related posts on these (American) football sites, I figured that I would offer some perspectives as an American currently in Belgium, especially since the Rumble in the (Brazilian) Jungle is only days away. So, without further ado:

Welcome to a World Cup year. When this happens, the summer months (usually mid-June to mid-July) find themselves dominated with coverage of international soccer/football. For most of the planet, football/soccer is the sport of sports, and the World Cup is the sporting events of events. Certainly, the Olympics are far most inclusive to an international audience, and with the recent split between the Winter and Summer Games, a more regularly occurring event. However, for one-time events, not many things in the history of the world will compare to a World Cup, especially a World Cup final. No single Olympic event (opening or closing ceremonies) will ever achieve the ratings of a World Cup final. Oftentimes, the American SuperBowl likes to boast a worldwide audience of nearly a billion people and if you factor in people who tune in to international broadcast and work estimates in a given country, perhaps you may actually get close to that number. However, for a World Cup final, a conservative estimate figures 2 billion people will be physically watching the World Cup final.

Currently, I find myself spending my second consecutive World Cup away from the US. However, this time (2010, Qatar), I am in a country that actually qualified for the World Cup and is unabashedly showing all out support for their World Cup team: Belgium. Until recently, this nation had a strong history of consistently qualifying for the tournament and being able to make decent runs from time to time (a semifinal berth in 1986 as the high point). However, after elimination by Brazil in 2002 in the knockout stages, Belgium entered its own World Cup dry spell (not as bad as the 36 year US drought), unable to qualify for a World Cup or European championship berth until the 2014 World Cup. However, their time in the wilderness was spent developing younger talent which could excel at the international club level and work together to create a formidable opponent for any international team. In October 2013, Belgium clinched their respective European Qualifying group and earned a seeded position at the World Cup. It would also be a preview of musical actions to come in the future, evidenced by the brief 30 minute sonata of football/soccer car horn musical celebration.

Having been in Belgium for nearly a full year, it has been impossible to avoid any mention of the Belgian national team in this country. Endorsements of all sorts bore likenesses of key players for the national team (The Red Devils). Local sports media coverage made a point of focusing on the exploits of key players in various domestic and international leagues, with many Belgians making significant contributions to their respective club teams in the top leagues in the world (English Premier League, the German Bundesliga, Spanish La Liga). Additionally, the Red Devils also serve as that rarest of things…a force that unifies a very, very divided country. Not much brings together the French-speaking/Left-wing Wallonia Province and the Dutch-speaking/Right-wing Flanders Province of Belgium. This is a country that could not form a national government for over a year and a half (post-invasion Iraq did this faster). Yet, the national soccer team inspires the passions of all Belgians. During the Group Stage matches, stores and highway were desolate, and car-horn symphony performances roughly ran about 3 hours post-match (grateful to have a deep sleeping kid and a couple of good noise-making machines). Estimates figure that nearly 4 million Belgians (in a nation of 11 million) watched their Red Devils in the three group stage matches.

Here are a few other points to be made about the World Cup in Belgium:

Just because people are in Belgium doesn’t mean that everyone here is "All In" for Belgium: Just within a 2 mile radius of the town we live in, you could see the following flags hanging from windows: Belgium, Italy (especially Italy), Spain, Brazil, Portugal, France, Spain, Algeria, Uruguay. Granted, the Belgian flags win out, (one can even find flower arrangements in the formation of a Belgian flag), but they are far from alone. NOTE: You really won’t find any American flags out here, mostly due to security practices. Not that Americans feel any real animosity here per se, but discretion is the better part of valor.

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Variances in television coverage. This World Cup, I end up watching coverage in various languages. Mostly, a Belgian channel (La Deux) has HD coverage of the games (French language). However, when it came time for the Belgian games, La Duex did not show those games. Had to either watch the games on a French (national) channel or the BBC. Not sure the full details, but I suppose some licensing/copyright/Wallonia-Flanders dispute is at the center of it. One notable advantage, since I don’t have fluency in French, I can watch the games and make up my own mind about the action, missing out (if you could call it that) on a lot of the inane commentary/chatter which is a staple for most sporting events. Admittedly, the French commentary contains more passion than your standard American broadcast, but nothing on this earth comes close to the Mexican Univision commentary, especially for, er, goal-scoring…

FIFA taking care of the home front: For Belgium (and most of the European teams), they had match times that were feasible for television viewing (6 p.m. or 9 p.m. mostly). A couple of midnight local kick-offs, but overall, good TV coverage. However, given that Brazil is four hours behind, and weather conditions in parts of Brazil are notorious for high heat/humidity (probably not a great deal for the players). Still, FIFA is a European-based organization, and you want to keep the home base (sponsors) happy. However, FIFA did hook the Belgium team up, enabling them to travel the least distance for their three respective matches, keeping them relatively well-rested. By contrast, the US had the most distance to travel, and at times, it definitely showed.

So, all that to say, we have completed a couple of weeks of the tournament, the Group Stage is done, and now, we are in the knockout stage (aka, win or go home). It is at this point that the football/soccer destinies of America and Belgium collide, as they face off this coming Tuesday. These teams don’t play all that often. The US took down Belgium in the 1930 World Cup, but Belgium claims most of the recent success, including a 2013 friendly in the US where the Red Devils won 4-2. Now, if you want a full-up tactical analysis of what could happen on the pitch, you can go to some other sports site. However, I will try to give you a balanced approach, accounting for some on-field and some off-field stuff.

Talent Level Advantage: Belgium The talent level on Belgium is considered among the best of the younger squads. Many of their top players have not seen their 28th birthday and many experts look for Belgium to legitimately contend for the 2018 title. The US is no slouch, but man for man, the overall talent ceiling goes to the Belgians

Coaching Advantage: US Both squads are led by former national team stars (Jürgen Klinsmann (German but now in the US) and Marc Wilmonts (Belgian)). Klinsmann can claim an actual World Cup title to his resume (1990). Additionally, Klinsmann coached his home country to a semi-final appearance in 2006. While both coaches have shown remarkable skill in their substitution patterns and motivational tactics, the experience of Klinsmann plus the fact that he just guided the US through the "Group of Death" that many did not expect the US to survive gives him the edge here.

Goalkeeping Advantage: US: I am kind of partial to this position (since this is what I typically play when I play football/soccer). Both teams starting goalies are high level stars in their respective professional leagues. The US keeper (Tim Howard) led the EPL with the most shutouts and has been a mainstay for the US national team. The Belgian keeper (Thibaut Courtois) brings his own laurels, leading his team (Athletico Madrid) to a La Liga title and got them within a few minutes of a UEFA Champions League title this season. Yet, I think that the US keeper means more to the team than the Belgian keeper does to his, that and the American keeper depth is a little stronger.

Fan Passion Advantage: Belgium In the US, while there are increasing numbers of folks watching and following the games, there is still a notable contingent of Americans who want nothing to do with football/soccer. In Belgium, er, they have no issue with national support of football/soccer (again, a rare unifying element for the nation). Based on the level of celebrations, the crash of any sort of defeat will resound throughout the entire nation, probably for a couple of full days. In the US, once eliminated, you’ll see some disappointment, a few head shrugs and everyone going about their lives.

Beer Advantage: Belgium And it ain’t even close. For a national leadership-type wager, outgoing Belgian Prime Minister Elio De Rupo called for a beer bet with President Obama . Comparing the different beer types, I would say Obama got the better deal.

Dealing with Higher Temperatures/Humidity Advantage: American players are more used to high heat/humidity than Belgium. Besides, more Americans use air conditioning, which may not factor into the match, but in the summers months in Belgium, with the majority of facilities sans AC, the Americans win this debate.

Style of Play This World Cup: Even. The US has shown more flexibility, but also has a bad habit of committing the bad mistake at the bad time (especially on the defensive end). Belgium, well, they don’t seem to want to score until 70 minutes in, which may not be advisable in the later rounds. The US has a little more recent knockout round experience, but Belgium has the better overall talent.

ASSESSMENT: This is a tough one. I am sure the betting line has Belgium favored. Both sides have key injuries, but Belgium’s injuries will impact their overall defensive talent, the strength of their team. The US team is tough to get a read on, but one thing is a given…they will not roll over, even if they go down in a match. Still, this is one of those heart/head debates. My heart wants the US, but my head says Belgium 2-1 in extra time. NOTE: I WOULDN'T MIND BEING WRONG ON MY ASSESSMENT HERE.

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