As a sport-loving nation, Belgians are fond of many kinds of sports. Cycling and football are the most popular sports in the country, but as the national sport, football takes precedence over any other sport in Belgium.
Although the Belgian national football team has emerged as a competitive team in recent years only, after decades of average and below-par performance, the country has a rich, long-standing history of football, and its locals have a deep passion for the sport.
Here is an account of football in Belgium, its evolution over the years, and its current status.
History of football in Belgium
As ardent football fans, the Belgians have always stood behind their team and revered the game for hundreds of years. Belgium was one of the first countries in mainland Europe to play football. In October 1863, an Irish student walked into his college in Melle with a leather ball, which was the first time the locals were introduced to the game.
In the initial years, football remained a game of the elite, while the locals preferred rugby. However, it soon became a popular sport, and by the 1890s, many sports clubs around the country were playing football.
In 1895, ten sports clubs formed the Belgian Sports Board Union to regularise and monitor the sport. The association organised the first football league in the country the following year. At the beginning of the 20th century, Beerschot, an Antwerp-based football club, organised a tournament and invited teams from other European countries.
Belgium was also one of the founding members of FIFA, established in 1904, and the national team played its first official match against France the same year. Two years later, the national team was nicknamed the Red Devils because of their red jerseys.
Belgium officially made its first Olympics appearance in 1920 and won the tournament. In the 1900 Summer Olympics, the Belgian players were part of a squad that had played in France and won a bronze medal. In the following years, the team could not gain considerable success and lost in all three World Cup tournaments.
During the World War, Belgium remained active and played friendly matches only. The team’s performance improved during the 1970s, with the team qualifying for the World Cup in 1970 and earning second place at the UEFA Euro Championship two years later.
Over the years, Belgium has had its share of ups and down, but the country has produced great talent that has put it on the football world map and helped it achieve a prominent place in the world rankings.
Belgian National Football Team
The Belgian national football team has been playing internationally since 1904. The team is currently placed in the fourth position in the FIFA rankings. Until December, it was the second-best team in the world, but it was pushed back to fourth place after being knocked out of the FIFA World Cup in the group stage.
The team enjoyed moderate success during the last decades of the twentieth century and fell behind in the following years. Things again began to improve as a young football squad led the team to victories in the World Cup and Euro Championships during the next decade.
It was the return of the golden era, as in 2015 and 2021-22, the team was ranked number one in FIFA rankings. Belgium qualified for the FIFA World Cup final in 2014, and in 2018, it finished the tournament in second place, which is its best record to date.
The team has appeared in the World Cup 14 times, the first being in 1930. The team has also played in the UEFA Euro Championship six times since 1972, and its best result so far is second place in the 1980 tournament.
The Belgian women’s national football team has been playing internationally since 1976. The team is currently in twentieth place in the FIFA rankings and has not yet qualified for the World Cup. The team has played in the European Championship twice. In the recent championship in 2022, the team reached the championship quarterfinals.
Domestic football competition in Belgium
Domestic football competitions have been held in Belgium for hundreds of years. The ten founding members of the Belgian Football Association participated in the first championship in 1895. The existing league structure in the country has five tiers, and over the years, more levels were added to formalise the structure.
While the quality of football improved in the country in the later part of the century, the Belgian football clubs were regarded as some of the most competitive and thriving in the region, having won championships between 1975 and 1988.
The highest football division for men in the country is Belgian Pro League. It is the oldest league in the country and has 18 teams, which will be reduced to sixteen for the upcoming season. The league follows a promotion and relegation system with the Challenger Pro League, the second-highest league.
For women, the Super League is the highest football division. It was formed in 2015 and has eight clubs. The league follows a promotion and relegation system, with the First Division in the second tier.