The United States won the 2018 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup, with an undefeated record. That said, however, the Americans looked shaky at times and didn’t play their best basketball throughout the tournament.
Paul Nilsen of FIBA wrote a column last week about Belgium making him fall in love with women’s basketball once again — in particular, when Belgium defeated France, 86-65, in the quarterfinals.
In wholehearted agreement with Nilsen’s assessment of the Belgian national team, here are some reasons they won the hearts of basketball fans across the world.
Belgium played solid, fundamental team basketball
As Nilsen mentioned, the Belgians played a style of fundamental basketball that exemplified teamwork. Sure, Meesseman was the World Cup’s second leading scorer when the tournament was done, but Kim Mestdagh was actually Belgium’s leading scorer until the semifinals, when they played against the Americans.
In their game against Spain, the Belgians didn’t play isolation-heavy basketball. Instead, they played selfless basketball, which included crisp passing, open players running to the basket for easier shots and great three-point shooting. It was a joy to watch for almost any basketball fan.
Belgium is a non-traditional world power with WNBA star talent
For any national team to compete on the world stage, it is essentially required that one player be on a WNBA team or at least of WNBA caliber.
Belgium, fortunately, has at least two players with WNBA experience, with Emma Meesseman and Ann Wauters leading the way. Each played a minute in the WNBA, spending multiple years stateside, and made an All-Star Game appearance.
And here is the thing that makes Belgium unique from other European powers, like France, Spain, Turkey or Russia: The Belgians had never played in a world competition until the 2018 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup. Furthermore, the Belgians failed to make EuroBasket for five consecutive cycles, until 2017, when they shocked the continent to win the bronze medal. But without Meesseman and Wauters in the starting frontcourt, Belgium may have never had the spark they needed to make the World Cup this year.
Belgium maintained continuity from youth leagues to senior team
Most national teams have cores that stay together for long period of time. For Team USA, the core starts at the backcourt, where Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi have played together in every world competition since the 2004 Olympics.
For Belgium, Meesseman and Mestdagh are the team’s stars who are in their prime (Mestdagh) or almost-prime (Meesseman). But several other players also played with Meesseman on Belgian senior and youth teams, as well as on the international and domestic level. Additionally, Mestdagh, point guard Julie Vanloo and guard Hanne Mestdagh (who is Kim’s younger sister) are from West Flanders, the Belgian province from which Meesseman hails. Vanloo and Hanne Mestdagh also were on the Ieper Blue Cats, a youth team Meesseman played on when she was a teenager.
Finally, head coach Philip Mestdagh (Mestdagh’s father) was also Meesseman’s head coach for the Ieper Blue Cats when Meesseman was younger. That familiarity certainly helped Belgium keep things on the same page for many years, including the last two years as the team made its rapid rise through Europe.
The world loves underdogs and Belgium delivered in Spain
Since this was Belgium’s first World Cup appearance in the country’s history, the team was an easy fit in the role of tournament underdog, with no one willing to blame Belgium if they didn’t make it through the group stage.
Instead, Belgium showed they are better than many had expected and went on to win their group, including a shocking 72-63 win over Spain. Before that win over the host country, however, the Belgians had lost to the Spanish in friendlies and continental competition. In most cases, the Spanish had the game in hand well before the final buzzer sounded.
But people are inclined to follow a narrative around a team that perseveres through those losses and comes out with a victory later on and Belgium meets that criteria, having asserted itself as a world power in the last two years. But compared to the usual world powers, like the USA, Spain, France and Australia, Belgium is a team that’s easier to follow and root for if one doesn’t have skin in the game.
Now that Belgium has performed very well on the European and world stages in the last couple of years, it is time for them to show how they can sustain that success. Though Wauters will likely retire sooner rather than later, the team is poised to have a great deal of success around its younger core, especially Meesseman, who could be one of the world’s best by the time she is in her late twenties. So, after putting their commanding skills on display at the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup, could the WNBA see a return of Emma Meesseman or land another Belgium player in 2019?