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Breaking down Emma Meesseman’s and Belgium’s 2020 Olympic hopes

The Mystics star tweeted out her dream to play in the Olympics “one day.” It’s gonna be really hard for it to happen in 2020.

Emma Meesseman drives to the hoop against Sparks F Nneka Ogwumike. Stewart W. Small

Just over a couple weeks ago, the Olympics began in Rio de Janeiro. We ultimately saw the USA Basketball women’s national team win their sixth consecutive gold medal after embarrassing Spain, 101-72 on Saturday. And the American men’s team beat Serbia 96-66 the following day to win their third consecutive gold medal.

For the Mystics’ active players, everyone was on vacation until last week when they resumed practice. But during the break, Emma Meesseman tweeted out her hope to be an Olympian one day:

Meesseman’s native Belgium didn’t make the Olympics this year. But to be honest, they’re one of the weakest teams in FIBA Europe based on the rankings. The Belgians have also never made an Olympics or a World Cup before. And to top it all off, they haven’t been in EuroBasket Women since 2007.

Before you write Belgium off as a scrub team, there are some things you need to consider. First, Meesseman plays for them. Second, the Belgians played Olympic opponents like Belarus very closely. Third, they pulled out a big win over Poland, who has a more established basketball tradition. And fourth, seeing the Belgians repeatedly beat up the Netherlands, their arch-rival up north, is starting to get a bit old.

So, let’s run with Meesseman’s tweet and assume that the Belgian Cats (the women’s team’s nickname) can realistically be Tokyo-bound. What has to happen for Meesseman’s dream to become true for 2020?

How can Belgium make the Olympics?

It is a multi-step process, but here it is with the assumption that all 2016 qualification rules remain the same for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan:

  1. Belgium needs to qualify for EuroBasket Women 2017 by winning Group G OR being one of the top six second-place teams based on a ranking system. If they don’t qualify, then go to step 4.
  2. Belgium needs to finish in the Top-5 of EuroBasket Women 2017 in order to clinch a spot in the 2018 FIBA World Cup.
  3. In the 2018 FIBA World Cup, Belgium can secure a spot in the Olympics by winning the Gold Medal.
  4. If Step 3 doesn’t happen, Belgium has to qualify for EuroBasket Women 2019.
  5. If Belgium makes EuroBasket Women 2019, they have to win the tournament in order to secure the automatic Olympic bid.
  6. If Step 5 doesn’t happen, Belgium needs to finish in the Top 5 of EuroBasket to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Qualifying Tournament.
  7. In the 2020 Olympic Qualifying Tournament, Belgium needs to finish in the Top 5 of the 12 team tourney.

Where is Belgium right now in the process?

Currently, Belgium is in Step 1 which hasn’t been finalized. They are in Group G of the qualifiers, which has 2016 Olympic participant Belarus and Poland.

Group G EuroBasket Women 2017 Qualifier Standings

If you look at the standings right now, Belgium is in last place. Not good.

But consider this:

  1. Belgium controls its destiny and has two games left to play. Belarus and Poland have one game left and have to play Belgium. If they win both games, they win Group G of the qualifier and are going to EuroBasket 2017.
  2. Belgium blew out Poland in a 100-63 blowout held in Namur, Wallonia last February. The Belgians liked this win so much to the point where they had to have music-themed highlights for it.
  3. Belgium was close to upsetting Belarus and lost 76-71 last November on the road. Meesseman dropped 31 in that game. And by the way, Belarusian stars Yelena Leuchanka AND Lindsey Harding both played major minutes for them. It’s not like a Top-10 team in the world played its B-team against a team made of Meesseman and a bunch of players no one knows about within FIBA Europe. A game like what we saw against Belarus is exactly why the Belgian Cats are going to be quick to say that they’re grossly underrated.

Belgium’s next two games will be in November, when we’ll know for sure about whether Meesseman gets to play in her first-ever EuroBasket tournament.

They host Belarus on November 19 at their stomping grounds in Namur. And on November 23, they’ll play Poland again, this time on the road. It probably won’t be too far from one of Marcin Gortat’s hangout spots.

The moral of the story with this group is that you shouldn’t look at Belgium’s “unranked” position that seriously. They already have one of the WNBA’s best players along with one former number one pick in the WNBA Draft.

Also, these rankings are based on continental competitions, the World Cup, and the Olympics. Until the Belgians make a EuroBasket tournament at the very least, they will never get a single point and become a ranked team.

When it’s all said and done, I think Belgium will make EuroBasket Women 2017. They were in a favorable group to begin with and are performing better than most believed already.

Earning a Top-5 Finish in EuroBasket Women 2017 will be VERY HARD to do

Step 2 requires that Belgium finishes in the Top 5 of EuroBasket Women 2017 to make the World Cup. That is going to be a long task because Europe is loaded with many world powers. Here are the Top 10 FIBA Europe Teams, which include a list full of teams who have an established Olympic tradition:

Top 10 FIBA Europe Teams after 2015

I’m no expert on every European national team, but it’s safe to say that Belgium has its hands full for EuroBasket Women 2017.

The top of the Belgian roster — meaning Meesseman and Ann Wauters — is a good foundation to start with. But no one else on the Belgian national team is exactly known for being a superstar on a EuroLeague team. Without multiple players of that kind of caliber, it will be tough for them to advance far. Meesseman and Wauters won’t be enough.

I don’t see Belgium winning EuroBasket Women 2017. And to be honest, a Top-5 finish is a huge stretch. But that could be doable if they get into a favorable group AND don’t have to face a traditional power like Spain or Russia in the quarterfinals.

Regardless of where they finish, the Belgians would gain valuable experience by playing in EuroBasket 2017. It would be a disappointment to see them miss it because they control their own destiny.

If Belgium makes the 2018 FIBA World Cup, they aren’t winning it

Let’s assume Belgium makes the FIBA World Cup. If they do, they don’t have the talent to win it and the Olympic berth. The winner is most likely going to be one of these teams: the United States, Australia, Spain, France, Russia, or Serbia. I didn’t make this list one team — namely the USA — simply because humans play basketball games, not robots.

If Belgium earns a trip to the 2018 FIBA World Cup, their goal should be sneaking out of group play and praying that they’re in a favorable group to begin with.

The most realistic way for Belgium to be Olympic bound is to earn a berth via the Qualifying Tournament in 2020

It’s safe for you to write Belgium off as a World Cup and EuroBasket Women 2017 contender. But it’s still in their interest to at least make the latter in order to get some continental experience under their belts. It’s more or less a dress rehearsal for EuroBasket 2019 which is “Do or Die” time.

Meesseman would be 26 then and just entering her prime, though I assume Wauters will call it a career. Belgium will HAVE TO MAKE EuroBasket Women 2019 AND get at least a Top-5 finish to keep their Olympic hopes alive. If they win the 2019 tournament, then Belgium gets FIBA Europe’s automatic berth to Tokyo.

If Belgium can make EuroBasket Women 2017 and have a solid finish there, it’s going to give them a lot more confidence heading into 2019. With Meesseman being even better at this point, it may not be unrealistic to see her lead the Cats to a Top-5 finish with a favorable group and match ups.

Though 2019 is far away, I still don’t think Belgium will win it. But a Top-5 finish will get them to the 2020 Olympic Qualifying Tournament where they’ll have a decent chance to earn one of five berths for the Olympics. The other FIBA Divisions: Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas are all weaker assuming the USA and Australia qualify already. That should play to the Belgians’ advantage. If they can make the Top-5 in EuroBasket 2019, a 2020 Olympic berth should be quite likely the following year.

Can Belgium attract non-citizens to naturalize and play for the Cats?

Basketball - Olympics: Day 8
Lindsey Harding is an American who naturalized in Belarus to play in international competitions. The Belgians would get a big boost if they can attract a quality American WNBA player to naturalize there as well.
Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Another thing that hurts Belgium is that they don’t have any naturalized American WNBA players that some of the Southern Mediterranean, Eastern Bloc and former Soviet countries have(ex - Epiphanny Prince for Russia, Shavonte Zellous for Croatia, LaToya Sanders for Turkey). The leagues in the Eastern Bloc and Middle Eastern countries like Turkey and Israel are also better than Belgium’s.

Barring another young Belgian star coming up the ranks, the only other way for the Cats to get a shot in the arm is by getting a non-Belgian to apply for a special fast-track citizenship procedure called naturalisation. (I’m spelling it the British way because that’s the specific term they used.) The normal route for a non-Belgian citizen to get citizenship is called declaration which has residency and integration requirements.

The “good news” from an athletic standpoint is that there is no set residency requirement for naturalisation. In addition, people with special merits, including athletes will be considered.

However, integration is still taken into account before one is naturalised. The athlete’s primary residence should be in Belgium (which shouldn’t be a problem given the way the WNBA season is), and be able to speak Dutch, French, or German (yes, there’s a small German-speaking community) proficiently.

That said, here is how it could work for the Belgian Cats:

  1. The naturalising player must be someone who never wore another senior national team’s uniform before in official competition. The only country that would realistically be in play is the United States given how dominant they are. There are definitely a good number of All-Star quality Americans who won’t be able to get on the USA Basketball women’s national team but could make an impact for anyone else.
  2. A Belgian professional team offers her a good contract along with the Koninklijke Belgische Basketbalbond/Federation Royal Belge De Basket-Ball (KBBB/FRBB or the Royal Belgian Basketball Federation in Dutch/French) recruiting her for the national team. To help the player get naturalised faster, she must learn Dutch or French and speak it decently. If she already knows some French (since it’s a more practical language worldwide), the better! That said, most people in Belgium speak Dutch first and language politics are a REAL THING here.
  3. The athlete applies for naturalisation. It’s ultimately up to the Belgian government to approve her citizenship. But when Belgium passed its current citizenship laws, it was VERY HARD for anyone to actually get approved. Hopefully, with a World Cup or Olympics on the line, maybe that tips the scales.
  4. If all of this works out, the naturalised player is probably going to have to continue playing for her Belgian pro team. But I’d imagine that the talent in the Belgian league would improve too, so this isn’t a bad thing in my opinion.

This hasn’t been tried yet to the best of my knowledge for women’s basketball. But this is something I think the KBBB/FRBB would have to consider if they really want to get the Cats to an Olympics before Meesseman’s prime is through. That time will pass before we can blink an eye.

I get that it’s not conventional, but plenty of other European countries are doing things like this. It’s just how business is done to be competitive on an international level and is nothing to be ashamed of at this point. After all, the American men’s soccer team is doing something kinda close by attracting European dual citizens, though they aren’t fast-tracking citizenship, a la Andray Blatche and the Philippines or through something like the Belgian naturalisation process.

My prediction: Belgium will make the 2017 and 2019 EuroBasket Women tourneys, but won’t make the 2018 FIBA World Cup or the 2020 Olympics

The Belgian Cats have enjoyed some successes last winter against other traditional European powers. They already have one of the best players in the WNBA as their foundational star for a decade. I expect to see great things from them in the next few years.

However, Belgium is still far behind most European countries when it comes to building a true contender for tournaments like the World Cup and the Olympics. Building these types of contenders will take time, and I’m not confident that they are going to make the World Cup or Olympics with the status quo.

If Meesseman is going to play in an Olympics at least once, it’s going to require her to get a better supporting cast. Part of it will come from the improvement of her current teammates. But the Belgians will need to consider attracting a good American player to naturalise since other countries do this already. I’m not sure if the Belgians can do all of this, especially with naturalisation in time for 2020.

But the 2024 Olympics could be a little more realistic. Meesseman would be 31 and still very much in her prime. If the Cats still have high ranking girls teams between now and then, many of those girls will eventually make the senior team. Some of them could also be in the WNBA. That, and a naturalised player could be enough for Belgium to make the Olympics and a World Cup by then.