Last practice match before a World Cup: you can't usually learn much from it... except for that one time


The Red Devils play their last exhibition match against Egypt before the World Cup really starts. We are all looking forward to seeing what national coach Roberto Martinez and the players pull out of their hats. History shows that we should not overestimate its importance in view of the final performance at the World Cup. Except for that one time in that friendly match for the 2018 World Cup that was so successful for the Red Devils.

Ludo Vandewalle

June 3, 1982: Belgium-Ajax 4-2

Yes, you see it right. As the last exhibition game before the departure for the World Cup in Spain, the Red Devils will play an unofficial international match against club team Ajax. Why? Because two years earlier, a game against Romania had been scheduled as a farewell match before the departure to the European Championship 1980. There, ocharm lured 3,000 spectators to the Heysel. Ajax was invited because Johan Cruijff played there again. It worked because this time there were 30,000 people in the stands. It was also the farewell match of Wim Jansen, legendary Oranje-international and good friend of Cruijff. The match itself was a pleasant viewing piece, but that was all that was needed. The Devils did fall 1-2 behind, but put that right to beat Argentina 1-0 in the opening match of the World Cup a week later.

May 19, 1986: Belgium-Yugoslavia 1-3

Panic in the Belgian house. Just before the trip to the World Cup in Mexico, the Red Devils were simply outplayed by Yugoslavia, which had not even been able to qualify for the World Cup. After 36 minutes it was already 0-3. It was clear to national coach Guy Thys: the youngsters Stéphane Demol and Patrick Vervoort were still too green and were replaced at half time. It became 1-3, but in Mexico it turned out in the group stage that this was not an accident. The Devils did badly and out of desperation Thys threw Demol and Vervoort into battle again. It was a golden intervention because the Red Devils finished fourth after losing in the semi-finals to the later world champion Argentina with a beautiful Maradona.

Later at the World Cup, Belgium was eliminated by, among others, a great Maradona. ©Getty Images

June 6, 1990: Belgium-Poland 1-1

Practice against a country that failed to qualify for the World Cup in Italy. Disappointed that for a while. After fifteen minutes, the Poles already had a 0-1 lead against the Red Devils’ typing team. Despair set in. National coach Guy Thys had put Jan Ceulemans on the bench in favor of Marc Van der Linden, something he would also do in the first match at the World Cup. The Devils were only able to equalize after a blunder by the Polish goalkeeper Wandzik. The Devils’ World Cup ended in the second round with a goal from Englishman David Platt in the last minute of extra time. Jan Ceulemans was a star.

June 8, 1994: Belgium-Hungary 3-1

The exhibition match before is more etched in the memory. Four days earlier, the Devils had put together a record score against Zambia: 9-0. With five goals from the naturalized top scorer Josip Weber. Four days later, Weber lapped in another one in the 3-1 against Hungary. It was also the international match in which Luc Nilis scored for the first time after 24 games for the national team. It was precisely this that caused a splitting swarm. Who at rush hour? Top scorer Weber or the finally scoring Nilis? National coach Paul Van Himst chose Weber and that did not go down well with everyone. The Red Devils started the World Cup with victories against Morocco and the Netherlands but suffered a blistering defeat against Saudi Arabia with Weber missing chance after chance. His five goals against Zambia were a long way off. In the next round they were out against Germany.

June 6, 1998: Belgium-Paraguay 1-0

The Belgians won, but Paraguay made a weak impression. It accomplished nothing. Nevertheless, the victory caused friction in the Belgian camp. Star player Enzo Scifo, brought back to the Red Devils by national coach Georges Leekens, sat on the bench. After the break he was allowed to come on and scored the 1-0. Still, it seemed that he would not start against the Netherlands at the World Cup. Which made Scifo nervous. It turned out to be a correct premonition because Scifo stayed on the bench for 90 minutes in the first World Cup match against the Netherlands. It would result in a quarrel between Leekens and the angry Scifo. The Belgians did not survive the group stage, the only time of the most recent seven participations. And Paraguay? That made it to the second round and was only eliminated after extra time by the later world champion France.

Enzo Scifo against Paraguay in 1998.

May 26, 2002: Belgium-Costa Rica 1-0

A game that was played in Kumamoto, the Japanese home of the Red Devils. Once again, it was not much of a matter against a country that did not represent much at the time and was present at the World Cup for the first time. Glen De Boeck, Johan Walem and Daniel Van Buyten caused panic due to injuries, but apart from De Boeck they are still ready for the first game. Bart Goor scored the only goal. This lackluster exhibition game was the harbinger of a lackluster start to the tournament with draws against Japan and Tunisia. However, the Red Devils recovered and in the second round they are eliminated by the later world champion Brazil. Nobody talked about the lackluster match against Costa Rica.

June 7, 2014: Belgium-Tunisia 1-0

A practice duel with some extra symbolism. Georges Leekens, who left the Red Devils two years earlier for a few euros more at Club Brugge, had ended up as national coach at Tunisia after some wanderings. He did not make it to the World Cup, national coach Marc Wilmots did. It threatened to become a sof until substitute Dries Mertens took care of the redemption one minute before the end. 1-0. Not much was learned from that game. The game was mostly remembered by a hailstorm that interrupted the game and damaged many cars near the stadium. At the World Cup, the Red Devils would die in the quarterfinals against the later losing finalist Argentina. A very solid tournament, much better than that exhibition match against Tunisia.

A young Eden Hazard in action against Tunisia in 2014. © BELGA

June 11, 2018: Belgium-Costa Rica 4-1

The only one of all those last exhibition games that was a positive direction for what would follow the World Cup. Despite an early 0-1 deficit, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and co waltzed over Costa Rica that would not be present at the World Cup. The line was extended to Russia, where the Red Devils only fell in the semi-final against a stiff France and would eventually deliver their best World Cup performance ever – third.

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