This is another one of my World Cup retrospectives. However, this one occurred five years before I was born, so I’m relying a lot on archive footage for this one. But given my heritage, and how I wanted to find a great World Cup story for them, I think I finally found it.
In 1982, Spain earned the right to host the World Cup for the first time. For many, it was surprising it had been fifty-two years for it to happen in Spain. The Spanish national team had a reputation for under-performing, but the Alfredo di Stefano Real Madrid teams dominated the European league scenes in the late 1950s and early 1960s, winning the first five European Cups (a.k.a. UEFA Champions League) in a row. Twenty years before Senegal did it to France, the Red Devils pulled off the big upset against the defending champions in the opening match of the tournament. The fact that it was not only the opening match of the tournament, but that this moment occurred at Camp Nou in Barcelona, makes it even more special to me, and I wasn’t even alive for it. But, for Belgium, it was a defining moment, which arguably gave them momentum for their semifinal run four years later.
Coming into the 1982 World Cup, Belgium was widely regarded as a second-tier team. They were appearing in their sixth World Cup but had failed to make it out of the first round in their first five appearances. They had only earned a grand total of three points in World Cup competition, with a win in 1970 and a draw in 1954 (this is correct because up until 1994, wins were only awarded two points instead of three, as is the practice now). They hadn’t played in the World Cup in twelve years. Still, although they had the defending champion Argentina in their group, many Belgians must have felt that they had a chance against the other two teams, Hungary and El Salvador. In fact, Hungary would demolish El Salvador 10-1 two days later in what remains the biggest scoreline in World Cup history. But many of the prognosticators were writing the Belgians off. Still, it was clear they were on the rise, having made the finals of the Euro 1980, finishing ahead of eventual 1982 world champion Italy, and narrowly losing 2-1 to West Germany, who would be runners-up in Spain. It was a start.
Argentina came in to Spain ’82 under very strange circumstances. Although they had hosted and won four years prior, controversy surrounded them on and off the pitch. Not only was their government ruled by a military junta, but controversy ensued during their second round tilt in 1978 against Peru. Having to win by at least four goals to ensure progression to the final at the expense of their archrivals Brazil, Peru’s goalkeeper Ramon Quiroga, Argentine by birth, allowed six goals, including two apiece to Mario Kempes and Leopoldo Luque. Rumors persist to this day that Peru was either bribed or threatened by the military junta to allow Argentina to advance. In the final, the kickoff was delayed after protesting about Dutch player René van de Kerkhof’s plaster cast. This was enough to rattle the Dutch, who would fall 3-1 in extra time. Both of Argentina’s titles in the World Cup have come under mysterious and controversial circumstances. FIFA had allowed the Argentina-Peru match to start at a later time than the Brazil-Poland match, which gave Argentina advance knowledge. They wouldn’t learn from their mistake in this World Cup, allowing the “Disgrace of Gijon” between West Germany and Austria before they finally decided to implement simultaneous kickoffs for the final group stage games.
Several months earlier, England and Argentina had begun transgressions in the Falklands War. The Argentinian players flew to Spain having heard from the state-controlled newspapers that they were on the verge of a terrific military victory. Only upon arriving in Spain did they hear the cruel truth: the junta was on the brink of surrendering, and England was going to maintain control of the Falklands. In his first World Cup, Diego Maradona would have to lead a team whose morale was now crushed. It was a foreboding sign, one could argue.
For much of the first half, both sides created chances, but neither side could break through. The first half of the first match proved to be an exciting setup to the final act. Realizing that they had a good chance to push through, the Belgians pressed on the attack, and in the sixty-second minute, Franky Vercauteren lofted a pass into the eighteen, where Erwin Vandenbergh was running into the box. Many claim that Vandenbergh was offside, and incidentally enough, Vercauteren’s pass wasn’t hit all that well. The ball took a high bounce, where Vandenbergh was waiting. His first touch wasn’t his best, playing it off of his chest. For whatever reason, Argentinian goalie Ubaldo Fillol didn’t go for the ball right away. (Two interesting facts about Fillol, by the way: his nickname was “The Duck,” and at that time, Argentina gave their jersey numbers out in alphabetical order, so instead of wearing #1 as is common, he instead wore #7. Midfielder Ossie Ardiles wore #1, perhaps the only non-goalkeeper ever to do that in a World Cup.)
After playing the ball off his chest, it looked like Vandenbergh would try to head it over Fillol, but he let it bounce. Again, the keeper didn’t try to make a clutch save. After that second bounce, Vandenbergh had total control of the ball. From there, he one-touched it towards the back post on the left side. Fillol made his move, but much too late. As two defenders looked on, Vandenbergh hit the back part of the net. It was 1-0 Belgium. Even if it wasn’t considered “pretty” by our standards, it is still arguably the most important goal that Belgium has scored at a World Cup. Belgian announcer Rik De Saedeleer’s famous call can be heard below.
It’s surprising that more people don’t know Erwin Vanderbergh’s name. Perhaps because he never played for a “big” club in Europe, and played in the pre-Internet era, his name gets lost in the history books. But for Belgium, he earned forty-eight caps and scored twenty goals. In 1980, he led all of Europe with thirty-nine goals in thirty-four games for Lierse SK, a team that would finish sixth in the Belgian First Division that year. Vandenbergh also won Belgium’s league scoring title six different times (including four years in a row), with three different clubs, no less (three with Lierse, twice with Anderlecht, and once with Gent). This record still stands today. He may have been unknown outside of his home country, but those who saw him know what I’m talking about.
This rattled the Argentinians, who were now forced to press forward for an equalizer. Belgian keeper Jean-Marie Pfaff almost made a mistake of his own, coming out too far on a cross, which was then rebounded and shot wide by Ardiles. Belgium almost had a second, with Eric Gerets shooting just high of the bar. Late in the match, Argentina earned a free kick after a handball outside of the box. The subsequent shot rebounded off of the crossbar, and then Kempes secured the rebound. But Pfaff made a diving save, which then caused the ball to deflect off Kempes and go out of bounds for a goal kick. Belgium got lucky, because Pfaff had his back turned for much of the action, but regained his composure just in time. The ball bounced their way, figuratively and literally. As Argentina made a desperate attempt for an equalizer, Pfaff came up and made save after save, keeping the Belgian lead intact. With time running down, Argentina made one final push, but Pfaff was up to the task. Argentina’s final stand would end with the whistle blowing before they could make a throw-in. The Belgians had done it. Seen as “minnows” by most before the tournament started, they had opened the World Cup with an upset of the defending champions.
Whether or not the news from the Falklands had anything to do with Belgium beating Argentina, Belgium and their fans were euphoric. Argentina would subsequently rebound with a 4-1 win over Hungary (Maradona scored his first two goals in that game) and a 2-0 win over El Salvador, who as of this writing have played in six World Cup matches, and lost each one of them. Belgium also used the momentum to give them a 1-0 win over the El Salvadorians and earned a tight 1-1 draw with Hungary. For the first time ever, Belgium had advanced past the first round. It’s a testament to how strange a game it can be. Despite Hungary having a better goal differential than Belgium, and scoring ten more goals, Hungary went 1-1-1 and were eliminated while Belgium was 2-1-0. Belgium had won the group, with Argentina taking second.
Alas, the Red Devils would run out of luck in the next round. For that tournament only, they would divide into four teams of three. Belgium would be undone 3-0 by a hat trick from Poland’s Zbigniew Boniek and 1-0 against the Soviet Union. Argentina would also struggle in the next round. Brazil, still seething over the results from four years earlier, would get a measure of revenge by beating Argentina 3-1. Maradona would be sent off for a horrible tackle on Batista. Maradona later apologized, but not for the foul itself. He apologized for getting the wrong person (he was going for Zico, who was replaced by Batista two minutes earlier). Brazil would later go on to lose 3-2 in a classic match to Italy, which many still remember fondly today. Argentina and Belgium would play in the semifinals four years later, with Argentina winning 2-0 on their way to their second World Cup title; Maradona scored two sublime goals, and you can’t help but clap, even if it was done against “your” team.
For Belgium, this was their first real big moment in the World Cup. Even if it was only for once, they proved they could play with the best and beat them. Belgium would make the semifinals four year later, narrowly finishing fourth to France. With the exception of 1998, they have made the second round or better in every subsequent World Cup that they’ve appeared in (and the 1998 team didn’t lose a game, drawing all three matches, but not earning enough points to advance). I’d like to think that the goal from Erwin Vandenbergh was the breakthrough that the Red Devils needed. It set the stage for future upsets in opening matches, like Cameroon over Argentina in 1990 or Senegal over France in 2002. Maybe Vandenbergh will still only be remembered in Belgium. But for those who do remember, this is one moment they’ll remember fondly.