European Tour of Sports – Belgium

The Basics

Population: 11.25 M

Area: 30 528 km2

Capital: Brussels

Summer Olympic Medals: 148 (40 G-53 S-55 B)

Winter Olympic Medals: 5 (1 G-1 S-3 B)

 

Popular Sports and History

Belgium is a state culturally and linguistic divided between the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders and the French-speaking community of Wallonia and that reality naturally spills into sport, with most sport federations split into two branches overseeing the development of the games in their own backyards. Football, field hockey and basketball are some of the sports that escape that paradigm, yet many more present unified competitions at the highest level, with nationwide leagues held to sort out the Belgian finest athletes and teams.

The country’s evolvement on sports at the international stage dates back to the second Olympiad, culminating in the 1900 Games in Paris, and Belgium has the honour of having organized one edition of the Summer Games, at Antwerp, in 1920. Sending by far their largest delegation ever, the hosts tallied an incredible 36 medals, including 14 golds, to underline their most successful Olympic participation ever on an edition that comprised 28 other nations. The Olympic movement has grown immensely since those early editions and Belgium never approached the totals of 1920, however they’ve managed to regularly add a handful of honours in every appearance, coming home empty handed for the only time in Los Angeles 1936.

After the Rio de Janeiro Games, Belgium’s medal total is at 148 medals and it is symptomatic that the highest slice was provided by the nation’s number one sport, one that stretches his influence to every nook and cradle of land, uncompromised by linguistic barriers or cultural tensions. Riding bikes through the whole of Belgium, cycling’s marquee names are revered across the country and the populations flock to the roadsides to attend some of the sport’s legendary competitions.

Eddy Merckx riding uphill wearing the rainbow jersey as the reigning World Champion

Eddy Merckx riding uphill wearing the rainbow jersey as the reigning World Champion

It’s thus perfectly fitting that cycling’s greatest of all-time, Eddy Merckx, hails from Belgium, with “The Cannibal” boasting an unmatched trophy cabinet that includes, among dozens of other triumphs, five Tour de France GC wins, five Giro d’Italia, one Vuelta a España, three World Championships titles and victories in all five cycling “Monuments”. However, if no one could ever match Merckx’s achievements, Belgium boasts countless other cycling Champions, with the country amassing more Road Race World Championships titles (26) than any other nation.

Furthermore, Belgium cyclists combined to conquer 18 Tour de France and 7 Giro d’Italia, numbers only surpassed by the hosting nations despite remaining stagnant since 1976 (Tour) and 1978 (Giro). On the other hand, Belgium’s decorated history on one-day classics is still receiving new additions, with the country dominating in accumulated triumphs at three of the Monuments (Tour of Flanders, Liège–Bastogne–Liège and Paris-Roubaix) and coming after hosts Italy on the other two.

Belgium’s cycling prowess naturally extends to the Olympics, with a total of seven gold medals in the sport, the most recent by Greg Van Avermaet at Rio on the men’s road race, yet the other disciplines shouldn’t be forgotten. In mountain biking and track cycling, Belgium athletes have achieved Olympic success in multiple occasions, while in cyclo-cross no country has matched their dominance at the World Championships and World Cup level.

Cycling is definitely the belle of the ball but football has its own predominance in terms of team sports. Two editions of the European Championships (1972 and 2000, this one in a shared organization with Netherlands) were held in Belgium, and the national team has regularly qualified for the major competitions, playing in 12 of 20 World Cups and five Euros. From 1982 to 2002, Belgium never missed the sport’s biggest competition, peaking with a fourth place in 1986, while they were runner ups in the 1980 European Championships, losing the final to West Germany.

The best period of the “Red Devils” history comprehended the 1980’s and 1990’s, with names like Jan Ceulemans – whose 96 caps are a record -, Eric Gerets, Jean-Marie Pfaff, Franky Vercauteren, Enzo Scifo, Marc Wilmots, and Michel Preud’homme deserving recognition, but a new era of glory seems in full swing, with Belgium fresh of reaching the quarter-finals of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Euro founded on a tremendous collection of talent that plies its trade abroad on the best European clubs. On the women’s side, the wind is also blowing favourably, as Belgium recently qualified for its first international competition, the 2017 European Championships.

Diego Maradona's Argentina downed the Red Devils at the 1986 World Cup semi final, Belgium's best performance in the competition

Diego Maradona’s Argentina downed the Red Devils at the 1986 World Cup semi final, Belgium’s best performance ever on the competition

From 1976 to 1988, while the National Team racked up successful campaigns, Belgium clubs took advantage of the available resources to also achieve unprecedented heights, collecting a total of seven European trophies, five of those courtesy of the nation’s most successful emblem, R.S.C. Anderlecht. The 33-times National Champions conquered the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 1975–76 and 1977–78, the UEFA Cup in 1982-1983 and the European Supercup in 1976 and 1978 to tower over Belgium football, but others also left their mark. Club Brugge K.V, who holds 14 National Championships, played in the premium European Cup Final in 1977–78, something no other Belgium club can claim, and also contested the UEFA Cup Final in 1975-76, while 4-time National Champions K.V. Mechelen won the 1987–88 European Cup Winners’ Cup and the 1988 European Super Cup. With no European feats to pamper but 10 National titles and 7 National Cups laying on their museum, Standard Liège is also one of Belgium’s traditional clubs, while Royale Union Saint-Gilloise dominated the scene before World War II, amassing 11 National titles from 1903 to 1935, as of today still the third highest total.

The clout of cycling and football stars isn’t easily overshadowed, but you could make the case that two tennis players carried the Belgium flag worldwide like few others could after the turn of the century. Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters were both World No.1 in the WTA Rankings in the 2000’s and their résumés speak for the tremendous popularity both enjoyed among tennis’ fan base. The Liège-born Henin won seven Grand Slam titles, including three at Roland Garros, and the single’s tournament at the 2004 Olympics, while Clijsters, a Flanders-native, conquered four majors, including three at the US Open. The duo also led Belgium to its only Fed Cup triumph, in 2001, finishing as the runner- up in 2006 by losing the final on home soil, something emulated nine years later by the men at their maiden Davis Cup final.

Belgium tennis stars Justine Henin (L) and Kim Clijsters (R), friends, teammates and arch rivals for much of their brilliant careers

Belgium tennis stars Justine Henin (L) and Kim Clijsters (R), friends, teammates and arch rivals for much of their brilliant careers

Meanwhile, Athletics is another sport where Belgian woman have bested their male counterparts recently, accounting for the last three Olympic medals in the sport after the men bagged all previous nine. Sprinter Kim Gevaert, twice European Champion in 2006, led the 4x100m relay to silver in Beijing 2008 – in a race won by a Russian team that has recently been disqualified – while high-jumper Tia Hellebaut conquered gold in the same edition, a accomplishment matched by heptathlon’s Nafissatou Thiam in 2016.

Belgium’s track record in team sports other than football isn’t exactly striking but a few deserve further mention.

The Belgium basketball team has participated in the EuroBasket on 17 occasions, with the best result being the fourth place in 1947, yet from 1979 to 2011 they only qualified once (1993). This down period is being put to bed with a fourth consecutive participation looming in 2017, but the country is far from a contender on the continental scale, even at the club level. BC Ostende and Spirou Charleroi may have combined to take 15 of the last 16 national titles, but can’t make a dent in European Competitions.

As for volleyball, the outlook is more promising in face of both national teams’ recent progresses. The men conquered the European League in 2013, and rode the success to guarantee a spot on the World League and secure qualification for the 2014 World Championships, a competition Belgium wasn’t part of since 1978. The women’s national team contested the European Championships in 2007 for the first time in two decades, lost in the final of the 2013 European League and won bronze at the 2013 European Championships.

 The women's national volleyball team of Belgium celebrates an historic bronze medal at the 2013 European Championships

The women’s national volleyball team of Belgium celebrates an historic bronze medal at the 2013 European Championships

At the club level, the main teams have also proved competitive internationally, since Knack Randstad Roeselare won the men’s CEV Top Teams Cup in 2002 and Asterix Kieldrecht won the same competition on the women’s side in 2001, adding the CEV Challenge Cup in 2010. Before that, men’s Noliko Maaseik reached and lost two finals of the CEV Champions League in 1997 and 1999.

In futsal, the national team appeared in the first three World Cups (1989, 1992 and 1996) but has failed to qualify ever since. A fourth place in the 1996 edition is their best outcome, while at the European Championships Belgium were third in the same year but have been ousted in the first round in every subsequent participation, including 2014, edition they organized. However, Action 21 Charleroi, 10-time National Champions since 1999, were crowned European Champions in 2005 after being runner ups in 2002 and 2003.

Another Belgian club with extensive continental pedigree is table tennis’ side Royal Villette Charleroi, which counts seven European Club Cup of Champions since 1994, including five victories in nine finals played in the European Champions League (since 1998-1999), making it the most successful club in this competition. The foundation of all those triumphs was Belgian table tennis legend Jean-Michel Saive who competed in seven Olympics from 1992 to 2012, and was the single’s European Champion in 1994 and runner up at the 1993 World Championships.

Furthermore, in the first editions of the Olympic Games, Belgium piled up medals in water polo (four silvers and one bronze) but since 1964 they haven’t been able to qualify , while the national field hockey team was a force until the 1970’s (winning bronze in 1920) before a down stretch that was only stopped at the turn of the century. The silver medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics culminated a return to form that had already delivered a third place at the 2007 European Championships and a second position on the same competition in 2013.

Belgium's field hockey national team won a silver medal at the 2016 Olympic Games

Belgium’s field hockey national team won a silver medal at the 2016 Olympic Games

Archery is the sport in which Belgium has amassed the highest number of gold medals (11) at the Olympics, yet those achievements mainly date back to the early 1900’s, since the country broke in 2016 a period of 20 years without representation in the sport at the highest level. Moreover, after the aforementioned cycling and athletics, three other sports can brag to have secured double-digit medals at the Summer Games: Equestrian, Fencing and Judo, with the latter being the most interesting case since it’s been part of the calendar for a shorter period. Belgium judokas brought medals from every edition between 1988 and 2004, with Ingrid Berghmans and Ulla Werbrouck taking gold in 1972 and 1996, both on the -72kg category.

As for sports figures outside of the Olympic range, a shout-out to billiards player Raymond Ceulemans, who dominated several variants of his sport for most of five decades (1963 to 2001), collecting a staggering 35 World titles and 48 European Championships in the process, and motocross racer Stefan Everts, World Champion ten times from 1991 to 2006.

In the winter disciplines, the representation of Belgium is usually reduced to a handful of athletes, nevertheless the country has been able to gather five medals in the Winter Olympics: one in speed skating, two in figure skating (including gold in 1948) and two in bobsleigh. The most recent – and first in 50 years – belongs to speed skater Bart Veldkamp, who finished third in the men’s 5000m in Nagano 1998.

Star Athletes

Tom Boonen (Cycling)

As soon as he closes the book on his storied career, the best eulogy that will be given to Tom Boonen is the nationwide understanding that he undoubtedly merited his place amongst the pantheon of Belgium’s cycling Champions. After all, the three-time Sportsman of the Year (2005, 2007, 2012) provided his compatriots with so many magical journeys over the last fourteen years that they’ll miss watching him power up the hills of Flanders or turbocharge through the cobbles on the roads towards Roubaix.

Tom Boonen took victory in the Paris-Roubaix for the fourth time in 2012

Tom Boonen took victory in the Paris-Roubaix for the fourth time in 2012

Born in Mol, Flanders, in 1980, Tom Boonen has rode all but one season of his professional career for Belgium-based Quick Step and it was draped in blue and/or black that he compiled a list of achievements few can match. The legend started taking shape in 2005, when he became the first man to win the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and World Championships in the same year, and since then it hasn’t stopped growing. About to turn 36, he’s tied for the record of triumphs in two of cycling’s Monuments, having won the Paris-Roubaix on four occasions (2005, 2008, 2009 and 2012) – like compatriot Roger de Vlaeminkx – and the Tour of Flanders three times (2005, 2006, 2012) – similarly to five other men – yet he’s been far from just a single day specialist that hoarded classics in bunches from 2005 to 2012. At the top of his powers, Boonen was also a strong sprinter in bunch finales, tallying six Tour de France stage victories during his career and securing the green jersey in 2007, winning two National road race Championships and finishing in the podium twice at the Milan-San Remo (3rd in 2007 and 2nd in 2007).

With over 100 professional triumphs to his name, “Tornado Tom” is reaching the twilight of his career but he may have a final card up his sleeve: the one he revealed at the 2016 Paris-Roubaix, where he came so close to an unprecedented fifth triumph.

Nafissatou Thiam (Athletics)

Nafissatou Thiam may have exploded into the international scene at the Rio Olympics, but it should be attested her country had already noticed the gem in hands way before that.

The Namur-native, a daughter of a Belgian mother and a Senegalese father, entered her maiden multi-event competition at age nine and would grab the first headlines in 2013, when she broke the women’s pentathlon junior WR indoors at Ghent. The mark wouldn’t be ratified for lack of an anti-doping control, but it didn’t take long for the young Thiam to prove herself in the main senior stages, taking bronze in the heptathlon at the 2014 European Championships and ending the season as the Belgian Sportswoman of the Year.

Nafissatou Thiam trumped a host of more experienced opponents to win gold at the 2016 Olympic Games

Nafissatou Thiam trumped a host of more experienced opponents to win gold at the 2016 Olympic Games

Still, the 22-year-old was considered an outsider heading into the 2016 Olympic Games, where a lifetime performance would deliver the Olympic title. Tapping on her superior length and power, she made ground on the throws (shot put and javelin throw), astonished on the jumps (long jump and high jump) and defended her position on the racing events to claim victory with a Belgium record of 6810 points and five new personal bests. If she keeps the upward trajectory, the charismatic and supremely talented “Nafi” has the tools to dominate the heptathlon for the next decade, and eventually became one of Belgium’s greatest athletes ever.

Eden Hazard (Football)

Picking one guy from the absolute collection of riches that forms the current Belgium football team isn’t an easy proposition, yet I deemed it necessary as a nod to the excellent work made by everyone involved with the revival of the game around the country.

The slick Eden Hazard is one of the stars of Belgium's Red Devils

The slick Eden Hazard is one of the stars of Belgium’s Red Devils

A son of former footballers, Eden Hazard crossed the border to France at age 14 to join Lille’s youth academy and he needed just two years to guarantee a debut for the senior squad in 2007, quickly becoming a key player for the Ligue 1 outfit. Over the next five seasons, Hazard developed into one of the most vibrant players in France due to his pace and creativity, eventually leading the club to a league and cup double in 2010-11, which earned him Player of the Year honours.

After he backed up the individual performance in 2011-12, the giants of Europe lined up to sign him and it was Chelsea FC who snapped the young Belgian winger, who’s been a mainstay at the club since then. In London, Hazard conquered the 2013 Europa League, was elected Young Player of the season in 2014 and flourished during 2014-15, meriting the distinction as Best Player of the Season by powering Chelsea to victories on the League Cup and English Premier League with a bundle of devastating exhibitions.

At age 25, Hazard has already represented his country in two major competitions (2014 World Cup and Euro 2016) since his debut in 2007, and is widely considered one of the top offensive midfielders in World football, making use of his deft technique, mazy runs and clinical finishes.

Other Athletes: Thibault Courtois, Kevin de Bruyne (Football), Pieter Timmers (Swimming), Thomas Van der Plaetsen (Athletics), Charline Van Snick (Judo), Evi Van Acker (Sailing), David Goffin (Tennis), Greg Van Avermaet, Philippe Gilbert (road Cycling), Jolien D’Hoore (track Cycling), Sanne Cant (cyclo cross), Bart Swings (Speed Skating), Thomas Pieters (Golf), Jaouad Achab (Taekwondo), Delfine Persoon (Boxing)

Venues

Brussels, capital of the European Union, centre of international cooperation and major multicultural city, was the place of one of the most disgraceful events in the history of European football: the Heysel Stadium disaster, which occurred before the 1985 European Cup Final between Juventus and Liverpool and took 39 lives as fans of both sides engaged in vicious confrontations in the stands.

Such dark episode of hooliganism was possible because of the wretched conditions of Belgium’s national stadium at the time, a venue erected in 1930 which was crumbling in several sectors and in serious need of repairs by his 55th anniversary. With capacity for almost 60,000 people, the Heysel Stadium hosted 7 finals of European Club competitions and the 1972 European Championships Final until the tragic contingencies forced a shutdown only interrupted for sporadic athletics competitions.

By 1995, under the name of King Baudouin Stadium and completely renovated, the largest stadium in Belgium was reopened, in time to receive the 1996 Cup Winner’s Cup Final and  be a part of the 2000 UEFA European Championships, with the opening ceremony and one of the semi-finals taking place in Brussels. The seating capacity is now 50,000 and the infrastructure is used regularly by Belgium’s national team and for annual events such as the National Cup Final and Athletics’ Memmorial Van Damme meeting. Moreover, over the last two decades, the King Baudoin Stadium also hosted international rugby matches, a record-breaking exhibition tennis match between Kim Clijsters and Serena Williams in 2010, and several concerts from luminaries such as U2, Beyoncé and the Rolling Stones.

The King Baudouin Stadium clad in red for a game of the National Team

However, despite a fruitful second life, there are plans for a brand-new National Stadium to be built in Northern Brussels in time for the 2020 UEFA European Championships. The proposed “EuroStadium”, still without a date to break ground, should welcome more than 60,000 people and would ditch the athletics’ track, being used by the National Team and RSC Anderlecht.

Anderlecht currently plays at the Constant Vanden Stock Stadium, whose initial foundations date back to 1917 and the actual formulation from the latest major renovation in 1983, when all stands were built from scratch and covered. Situated at the border of the Astrid Park, the Stadium, which carries the name of a former Anderlecht chairman and player, hosts just 28,000, including 6,900 standing people; therefore in European matches less than 22,000 tickets can be sold.

The second stadium in Belgium is Liège’s Stade Maurice Dufrasne (or Stade de Sclessin, in honour of the district where it is located). Used by Standard Liège, the venue was opened in 1909 and revamped several times until 2000, when it hosted three games of the European Championships and the capacity was set in 30,000 seats.

Coming right behind in maximum occupation is the Jan Breydel Stadium in Brugge, home of top-flight clubs Cercle and Club Brugge. A venue opened in 1975 as “Olympiastadion” after Club Brugge won the National Championship, the stadium was renamed and expanded in 1998, before the Euro 2000, to reach the more than 29,000 fans it can welcome today.

The other two stadiums that can hold over 20,000 are still relatively new. The 25,000-seats Luminus Arena in Genk was concluded in 1999, while the impressive, state-of-the art Ghelamco Arena was inaugurated in 2013. The new home of KAA Gent counts 20,000 seats and has already been bestowed with the club’s maiden National title celebration in 2014-15, plus some UEFA Champions League action the following season.

The spectacular Ghelamco Arena in Gent is the new landmark of the Belgium city

The spectacular Ghelamco Arena in Gent is the new landmark of the Belgium city

Running contrary to the trend emerging in most European countries, Belgium doesn’t possess a premium indoor arena in its capital city, a big venue that can be relied upon to host big-time sporting events, instead dividing the main competitions held in the state for a handful of locations.

The largest multipurpose arena in Belgium (by seating capacity) is the Ethias Arena in Hasselt – the capital of the province of Limburg – which seats 16,000 but can hold up to 21,000. Built in 2004, is a modern hall part of a broader exposition centre that is preferably used for concerts and cultural fests rather than sports events.

In Antwerp, the Sportpaleis, opened in 1932, was originally built for sports, including a cycling track where the 1969 and 2001 World Championships were contested, but has been reshuffled to fit other purposes. The latest renovation, in 2013, increased the total capacity to over 23,000 people, but nowadays music fans are the ones entering the gates, as concerts book the place regularly, leaving other events to the odd date. Still, the Sportpaleis hosted the 2013 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships and, in early 2015, over 17,000 fans attended a record breaking basketball match.

Nonetheless, most sporting events in Antwerp are now held at the adjacent Lotto Arena, a 5,200 seats-venue opened in 2007. Basketball’s Antwerp Giants are the regular tenants of the place, with the infrastructure also used for WTA and ATP Tour tennis tournaments.

The intimate Lotto Arena, in Antwerp, during a voleyball match

The intimate Lotto Arena, in Antwerp, during a voleyball match

The Flanders Expo in Ghent, a convention center built in 1986, is another location that regularly hosts important sports demonstrations. The biggest hall of the complex, Hall 8, is capable of welcoming 13,000 and was the venue chosen for the Final Four of the 1988 FIBA Champions Cup as well as the 2015 Davis Cup final.

Elsewhere in the city, a smaller amphitheatre, the Flanders Sports Arena, is used primarily for indoor athletics’ competitions, with the best example being the 2000 European Athletics Indoor Championships, while the “Kuipke” is the main velodrome in Belgium. First opened in 1927 on the city’s Citadelpark, and renovated in 1965 following a destructive fire, it seats 3,000 fans during the popular Six Days of Ghent, a track cycling competition held every November.

In Wallonia, the biggest indoor arena is Charleroi’s RTL Spiroudome, inaugurated in 2006 and with capacity for 6300 people, usually the fans of basketball powerhouse Spirou Charleroi. Meanwhile,  in Liège, the Country Hall Ethias Liège is the place to go for sports presentations, as the multi-purpose arena renovated in 2005 is used by Liège Basket and received the 1973 FIBA European Champions Cup Final and the 1977 EuroBasket Final.

Also located in the French-speaking region of Belgium is one of the country’s most iconic venues, the circuit of Spa-Francorchamps, where the Formula One Belgium Grand Prix, the Spa 24 Hours, and a multitude of other motor racing competitions are held. Capable of welcoming around 70,000 fans, the racing track first used in 1922 is one of the most challenging circuits in the world, being a favourite of most drivers and fans for its hilly and twisty nature, as well as the background of the Ardennes forests.

An overview of the dashing Spa-Francorchamps circuit

An overview of the dashing Spa-Francorchamps circuit

And we couldn’t close out this section without a reference to the roads of Belgium, which are paved by cyclists competing almost on a daily basis. From the winding Flanders-based classics rich in short, cobbled hills, to the Ardennes one-day races populated with consecutive, steep climbs, the beautiful countryside of Belgium and its charming towns are part of a giant outdoor venue that showcases to the World the passion of millions of Belgians.

Yearly Events

The list of significant cycling races held in Belgium is so extensive that you can virtually attend a major sports spectacle (for free) every week, anywhere, from March to October.

However, if cycling isn’t your thing, the best option is football, with the Belgium Championship, a mid-level European league, running from late July to May. The clubs are mainly located in Flanders and the Brussels region, with Liège and Charleroi as the main exceptions.  Meanwhile, the Basketball League starts in October and ends in June, whereas Volleyball’s regular season goes from October to March, with the playoffs stretching the play to early May.

For a summary of the rest of Belgium’s main yearly sporting events, look below:

Tour of Flanders (Ronde Van Vlaanderen), Cycling

Flanders region, early April

Liège–Bastogne–Liège, Cycling

Wallonia, Ardennes region, late April

The peloton of the classic Liège-Bastogne-Liège is saluted by a mass of people

The peloton of the classic Liège-Bastogne-Liège is saluted by a mass of people

Spa 24h, Motorcycle Endurance Racing

Spa-Francorchamps Circuit (near Stavelot, Liège Province), July

Belgian Grand Prix (Formula One World Championship), Automobile Racing

Spa-Francorchamps Circuit, August

Memorial Van Damme (IAAF Diamond League Meeting), Athletics

Brussels, September

Brussels Marathon, Athletics

Brussels, October

European Open (ATP Tour), Tennis

Antwerp, October

Six Days of Ghent, Track Cycling

Ghent, November

Cross Cup Brussels, Cross Country running

Laeken Park (Brussels), December

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s