"On the marketing side, I didn't make any decisions. I was shown the proposals. I told them that the first kit is great and the second one is fit for a cyclist." Belgium head coach Marc Wilmots was not exactly overflowing with enthusiasm when asked for his opinion about the Diables Rouges' new away strip a few weeks ago, but his comment nevertheless hinted that the shirts should fly off the shelves. The reason? The design combines the two most popular sports in the country: football and cycling.
This is the current state of play, but it has not always been the case. For a long time, cycling was ahead of the beautiful game. On this note, a quick glance at the list of winners of the Belgian Sportsman of the Year award tells you all you need to know: a cyclist came out on top in seven of the last ten editions, with Philippe Gilbert scooping the accolade on three occasions, which still leaves him some distance behind the record of another pedalling legend, six-time winner Eddy Merckx. However, football has gradually gained ground thanks to the national team's recent resurgence. Indeed, in 2014 goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois became the first footballer to claim the aforementioned prize.
"[Road] cycling and football are the two most popular sports in Belgium today, though I'd also add cyclo-cross in there, which is particularly big in Flanders," Gilbert told FIFA.com. "I love football myself, even if I'm not exactly an expert on it. I watch matches on television on occasion. I used to play a bit of footie when I was a kid."
"I'm originally from the Liege region, so I grew up supporting Standard. I can remember some fantastic atmospheres from the Stade de Sclessin," continued the BMC rider, whose last tweet at the time of writing was posted from the Stade Louis II, where he took in Monaco's UEFA Europa League meeting with Anderlecht on 26 November.
foot!! Monaco-Anderlecht! pic.twitter.com/wOUjQXi80Q
— PHILIPPE GILBERT (@PhilippeGilbert) November 26, 2015
Despite this talk of club football, the fact is that the game's boom in Belgium has more to do with the exploits of the national team than those of Standard Liege or Anderlecht. "Cycling held sway before but the Diables Rouges' fine results have fully reconciled the Belgian people with football. And their recent rise to number one in the FIFA Ranking has contributed even more," Gilbert stressed. "Being world No1 means a lot to the country. In difficult times, things like this bring people together. It plays an important social role."
Team sports and individual honours
Anyone who witnessed the atmosphere at Brussels' King Baudouin stadium during the 3-1 victory over Israel on 13 October 2015, which sealed Belgium's place at UEFA EURO 2016, will know that Gilbert's words ring true. In a country riven with internal divisions, the likes of Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Vincent Kompany have everyone singing from the same hymn sheet.
"We have a great generation of players," Gilbert said. "I believe that this domination can last for many years: the talent is there and it's a young squad. That's a good sign. It's always nice to see your team dominating the rest."
Gilbert knows a thing or two about dominating the peloton on two wheels, and he uses Belgium's footballing feats to his advantage when ribbing his rivals on the subject: "The banter flies around between us cyclists when international games are on," he revealed. "There are some big fans; football has a pretty large following among the peloton. But it's always good-natured.
"I bemoan the over-the-top nature of some supporters. The cycling crowds seem warmer, less virulent, to me. Everyone is supported the same way; in fact, the stragglers in the mountain stages may even get more support than the rest."
"Anyway, broadly speaking football and cycling are poles apart," said the Belgian rider, whose own list of honours includes triple glory in the Amstel Gold Race (in 2010, 2011 and 2014), and victory at the 2011 Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the 2012 UCI World Road Championships. "They are one-day races; you can't compare that with a league title or winning the World Cup! On the other hand, the Ballon d'Or is more like cycling in that it recognises the winner for individual performances in a fundamentally collective sport, but that's pretty much the only example of common ground between the two."
We can add at least one more item to this list: Belgium's love of and current success in both sports.