To give you a better perspective into Belgium’s fall from grace and international drought from major tournaments, all you have to do is look at the average age of the Red Devils’ current roster (26). The new golden generation was barely in their teens when the country last qualified for the World Cup in 2002. Belgium’s much anticipated return to the big show was built off tireless development and the emergence of a new breed of players. Belgium are the consensus dark horse pick given their performances in qualifying, heaping a little pressure onto a team filled with youngsters. Expectations are high, but depending on the draw, progression past the group stage is a sensible target.
Goalkeepers: Thibaut Courtois (Atletico Madrid), Simon Mignolet (Liverpool), Koen Casteels (Hoffenheim),
Defenders: Toby Alderweireld (Atletico Madrid), Laurent Ciman (Standard Liege), Nicolas Lombaerts (Zenit St Petersburg), Vincent Kompany (Manchester City), Daniel Van Buyten (Bayern Munich), Anthony Vanden Borre (Anderlecht), Thomas Vermaelen (Arsenal), Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham)
Midfielders: Nacer Chadli (Tottenham), Mousa Dembele (Tottenham), Steven Defour (Porto), Kevin De Bruyne (Wolfsburg), Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United), Adnan Januzaj (Manchester United), Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Kevin Mirallas (Everton), Divock Origi (Lille), Axel Witsel (Zenit St Petersburg)
Forwards: Romelu Lukaku (Chelsea), Dries Mertens (Napoli)
Having represented his country in four consecutive World Cups—including Belgium’s last appearance in 2002—Marc Wilmots spent three years as an assistant manager before taking control of the national team in 2012. The 45 year-old coach has quickly reversed the trend of failure by ending the dysfunction and infighting that has plagued the national program for over a decade. Confidence is high, as are expectations.
4-3-3 (GK) Courtois – (D) Alderweireld, Kompany, Vermaelen, Vertonghen – (M) Dembele, Witsel, Chadli – (F) De Bruyne, Hazard, Lukaku
Group H schedule
June 17: vs. Algeria in Belo Horizonte
June 22: vs. Russia in Rio
June 26: vs. South Korea in Sao Paulo
How they qualified
Calm seas with the wind catching their sails and guiding them smoothly into port. Belgium crushed their opponents in Group A—unbeaten in 10 matches with eight wins—and were never really threatened to be knocked off their perch at the top of the table. They finished nine points superior to runners-up Croatia, almost averaging two goals-per-game (18) and conceding only four, tied for the best defensive record in European qualifying.
Where to begin. Considering the Belgians have been off the grid in regards to international tournaments for 12 years, their sudden rise is proof that patience pays off in the long run. A golden generation all in the prime of their careers, half of the team heading to Brazil are first-team Premier League stalwarts. Depth at every position is by far Belgium’s biggest weapon, and it’s why they should be taken seriously by their opponents. The threat is very real.
Experience holds a tremendous amount of weight, and despite a roster filled with world-class quality at club level, their youthful exuberance might struggle to overcome the immense pressure to meet or exceed lofty expectations. Belgium is the hipsters’ choice as tournament dark horses. However, having been lost in the wilderness of world football for the better part of this century, and the consequence could be their ultimate undoing—the entire squad is made up of World Cup newbies.
Players to watch
Much of the spotlight has primarily been focused around the conglomerate of offensive weapons Belgium has developed in recent years. The attacking threat of Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Alex Witsel goes without saying. Equally, if not slightly more important is the performance of defender Vincent Kompany. His commanding presence and leadership provides stability and unequivocally integral to the teams overall structure.
Will Belgium live up to the hype or crash and burn? Overall, the accomplishment of qualification is a positive step forward for Belgian football. The squad heading to Brazil are similar in age—mid to late twenties—with the better majority in the midst of the prime years in a footballers career. The experience gained in battle this summer is of higher value than the final results.
Prospects in Brazil
You could say Belgium won the lottery by being placed in Group H with Russia, Algeria and South Korea. That’s not to say it will be easy, though it’s definitely one of the softer groups in the tournament. The Belgians should be able to advance to the second round, but expecting anything more would be overly ambitious for a side made up entirely of World Cup debutants. Germany or Portugal are most likely Belgium’s second round opponent should they progress past the group stage.
World Cup history
Belgian football’s golden-era on the international stage began in the early eighties and ended with a 2-0 Round of 16 defeat to Brazil in 2002. During that two-decade span, Belgium qualified for five consecutive World Cups, with their best performance being a fourth-place finish, losing to eventual champions Argentina in the semis at Mexico ’86.
• 1930 to 1938—First round
• 1954—First round
• 1958 to 1966—Did not qualify
• 1970—First round
• 1974 to 1978—Did not qualify
• 1982—Second round
• 1986—Semifinals (fourth place)
• 1990 to 1994—Second round
• 1998—First round
• 2002—Second round
• 2006 to 2010— Did not qualify
Algeria || Argentina || Australia || Belgium || Bosnia and Herzegovina || Brazil || Cameroon || Chile || Colombia || Costa Rica || Croatia || Ecuador || England || France || Germany || Ghana || Greece || Holland || Honduras || Iran || Italy || Ivory Coast || Japan || Mexico || Nigeria || Portugal || Russia || South Korea || Spain || Switzerland || Uruguay || United States