The “Red Devils” at the top of world football at Antwerp 1920
At a time when the most important, in fact the only, international football competition took place at the Olympic Games, the Antwerp 1920 tournament was of particular importance, as it brought together more teams and players than ever before, and for the first time an African team (Egypt) took part. In this sense, it was the forerunner of the FIFA World Cup, which was created 10 years later. Belgium won the gold medal in front of the home crowd, and this win remains the only major title achieved by the “Red Devils”.
A Belgian team did play in the first Olympic football tournament in Paris in 1900, but it consisted of a team put together by the Belgian University Athletic Federation (Fédération Athlétique Universitaire Belge), which finished in third place - out of a total of three teams. The official date of birth of the national team was 1 May 1904, with a match that also marked the debut of the French team. It took place in Ukkel on the outskirts of Brussels and ended in a 3-3 draw. Two years later, with the Belgian eleven playing in red shirts, they went on to win some famous victories against France and the Netherlands, and the “Red Devils” nickname appeared in the local press for the first time. In 1909, they suffered the worst defeat in their history, losing 11-2, playing away to England.
At the Games, the 1904 tournament in St Louis saw only American and Canadian teams taking part, and it was the Galt Football Club from Canada that won the gold medal. In London in 1908, eight European teams competed for the title, including two from the same country (France A and France B). Great Britain dominated the final, beating Denmark 2-0, while the Netherlands secured third place, beating Sweden by two goals to nil. In Stockholm, in 1912, this time there were 11 teams from the Old Continent competing. The final was the same as four years earlier resulting in the same podium places: Great Britain beat Denmark (4-2), and the Netherlands took the bronze medal, overpowering Finland with a score of 9-0.
The biggest football tournament ever played
After the First World War, sport and football regained their rightful place. The tournament at the Antwerp Games took the sport to a new dimension. “It is certainly the case that the football association tournament is unique from a competition perspective. It combines the involvement of the 15 best teams in the world, representing all the countries that practise this sport. Never before have such a group of soccer players come together in the same tournament,” the French sports daily L'Auto reported at the end of August 1920. In fact there would be 14 teams, since Poland had to pull out as the country was involved in armed conflict with Soviet Russia. Among the others, Spain, Greece, Luxembourg, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Egypt were taking part for the first time.
Belgium and France were exempt from the first round, which started on 28 August. From the outset, Czechoslovakia asserted themselves as serious contenders by crushing Yugoslavia 7-0. Sweden saw off Greece with a final score of 9-0. Italy eliminated Egypt, beating them 1-0, and Spain created a sensation by knocking out Denmark, a finalist in the two previous Olympic tournaments, with a score of 2-0. But as FIFA pointed out: “It's the surprise elimination of the UK that’s making headlines in the newspapers. The defending two-times champion was knocked out, 3-1, by Norway in the first round.”
A large crowd showed up for the quarter-finals which took place on 29 August, providing four spectacular matches. The Netherlands floored Sweden 5-4 after extra time. Czechoslovakia wiped out Norway 4-0, France conquered Italy 3-1; and for its first game in the competition, Belgium benefitted from a hat-trick from their star forward, Robert Coppée, to eliminate Spain 3-1.
In the semi-finals on 31 August, the Czech players continued their impressive journey, beating France 4-1 with three goals scored in the final 15 minutes of the game. Thanks to Henri Larnoe (46th), Louis Van Hege (55th) and Mathieu Bragard (85th), the Belgians reached the final by dominating the Netherlands 3-0, before being carried out in triumph by enthusiastic fans who invaded the Olympic Stadium pitch.
Belgium triumphant, but the final ends in confusion
The final between Belgium and Czechoslovakia took place on 2 September in front of more than 35,000 spectators. “The stadium was full to bursting an hour before the match. The ticket desks were closed and a very large crowd waited in vain outside the gates,” according to the report published in L’Auto the next day. The newspaper estimates that the match took place in front of 50,000 spectators.
After only six minutes of play, Mathieu Bragard took a shot and it was stopped in the penalty area by the hand of a Czech defender. Robert Coppée scored the penalty to put his team in front. The Belgians took the game in hand, and after half an hour of play, forward Henri Larnoe doubled the lead with a brilliant strike. The report written by the journalist for L’Auto who was on the spot states: “In front of a huge and enthusiastic crowd, Belgium won the tournament final by clearly beating the Czechs 2-0. The Belgian eleven proved splendid from start to finish, triumphant thanks to their speed and the fast and lucid design of their game, and through the efficiency of their unstoppable shots. The best team in the tournament won.”
But the game was still to end in confusion. Shortly before the end of the first half, the Czech left-back, Karel Steiner, was sent off for “violently hitting” Robert Coppée. Steiner's teammates challenged this decision and then left the pitch in protest as it was invaded by the crowd. Afterwards, the Czechoslovak delegation challenged the English referee, John Lewis, and called for the match result to be cancelled. The protest was rejected, the result was confirmed and Czechoslovakia was disqualified. On 5 September, Spain triumphed 3-1 over the Netherlands in the game that finally decided the winners of the silver and bronze medals.
One hundred years later, in 2020, Belgium tops FIFA's world ranking. The Red Devils achieved the best result in their World Cup history by taking third place in the 2018 edition in Russia, and then they secured 10 victories in 10 matches in the qualifiers for the 2020 UEFA European Championship (postponed to 2021). Belgium is at the top of the football world, but to date, their victory in the 1920 Games remains their only major title.