Thursday 27 February 2020, 08:09

Wullaert’s revived Red Flames plot redemption

  • Tessa Wullaert steels herself for Algarve test

  • Belgium captain feels side have grown since missing out on France 2019

  • Hopes challenge will be a vital primer ahead of crucial EURO qualifier

Having seen their FIFA Women’s World Cup™ dream finally evaporate in Switzerland 15 months ago, Belgium’s Red Flames were dead on their feet. Left with feelings of frustration at missed chances, they had spurned one of their best opportunities at reaching women’s football’s biggest stage so far.

But what hasn’t killed them has made them stronger. That’s the view of captain Tessa Wullaert. She believes her side have evolved since that heartbreak and are in the hunt to make it to back-to-back UEFA Women’s Championships – with the Swiss the main competitor they’re looking to deny.

It’s hard to argue with her. Since being edged out of the France 2019 play-offs on away goals, they’ve only lost once – at the hands of eventual champions USA – while scoring 31 times in their 12 other games. Even despite missing the world finals, they’re up to an all-time best of 17th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola Women’s World Ranking.

“It was disappointing,” Wullaert explained to, “but it gave us a whole year where we weren’t playing for anything, so it gives you time to try new things. It was really good, actually."

Wullaert stats

  • Red Flames’ all-time top scorer with 42 goals

  • Has won three of the last four Belgian Golden shoes, including the latest

  • On a run of winning at least one domestic trophy in each of the last seven seasons

Sitting down with a sports psychologist, focussing on team building and getting the squad talking openly about how to develop has them gearing up for a challenging six weeks – and their first games of 2020 – in a positive state of mind. Had it not been for those open communication channels, it might have been a simpler start, however.

“Normally we participate in the Cyprus Cup, but that tends to have more games where we have the ball. In April [against Switzerland] it’s going to be 50/50, so that’s why we will take part in the Algarve Cup because you’ve got tougher games there.

“We discussed this together with the coach. As a captain I speak a lot with our coach Ives Serneels. He’s been there since I started, so we’ve both had our ups and downs together, so sometimes he listens to me!”

Beginning brightly

Serneels was less than six months into his now nine-year reign at the Red Flames’ helm when he gave the 17-year-old Wullaert her debut. Having been frustrated at not being given the chance sooner – “I felt ready” – she duly repaid him by getting the winner against Russia.

But her talent was no great shock to anyone who had been paying attention to the teenager. “I had been playing one level below the national level (provincial level) with the boys, so that was really funny [laughs]. I don’t think it had ever happened before. I was just playing for fun and doing my best. It was never even a dream to become a professional football player, because I never even knew it existed.”

However, six years on from hitting her first in red, she’d scored more than anyone else (coincidentally breaking the record against Russia), a fact that left her a little dumbfounded. “I didn’t even know it was the record! I was like ‘I broke it, wow! What did the other girls do then, seeing as I’m only 23?!’ So, for me it was really weird, but it was cool at the same time.”

The Manchester City star is a tad defensive about only adding 16 more in the intervening four years. “Maybe I should be working on that! When I started out, I was a striker who always wanted to score, but now my game’s changed a bit. If you counted my assists as goals, I’d have a lot more!”

As the team’s scoring rate shows, goals aren’t hard to come by with Wullaert now sat off the front line in creative duties, but their trigger-happy habit doesn’t come as easily against the bigger sides.

With every team at the Algarve inside the top 31 – including the likes of Germany and Sweden – the former Wolfsburg forward is hoping this year of growth sees them develop a new sense of self belief.

“When it comes to bigger games we need to work on having the same confidence in playing, wanting the ball. I’m sure if we play our game against Switzerland and have that confidence, we can beat them.”

It’d be a win that would go some way to healing that wound suffered in the Alps in 2018.