Belgium: a dark horse for FIFA World Cup 2014?

Eddy Bramley Roar Pro

By Eddy Bramley, Eddy Bramley is a Roar Pro

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    Not since the days of Eric Gerets, Enzo Scifo and Luc Nilis under the leadership of Guy Thys has the Belgium national team boasted a side with this much promise.

    Belgium had a golden period in the 1980s, which began with a second place finish in Euro 1980, followed by a semi-final appearance at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.

    From there the Belgians qualified for every major tournament up until the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, where they qualified for the round of 16.

    Between then and now has marked a relatively dark period for the Les Diables Rouges, who fell off the international football map, failing to qualify for the 2006 World Cup for the first time since 1978.

    Almost a decade later we’re now seeing a new surge of Belgian talent sweeping Europe and a national team that is very much a dark horse for the 2014 World Cup.

    Coach Mark Wilmots must be credited for putting together a side that boasts a number of young stars and developing them into a team capable of some serious damage.

    Young stars such as Thibaut Courtois, Romelu Lukaku and Christian Benteke, as well as established players including Vincent Kompany, Eden Hazard and Daniel van Buyten, form a team that looks strong at the back and equally potent up front.

    And it is in England especially that much of the Belgian side are applying their trade and establishing themselves as genuine stars.

    12 of the current squad are contracted to teams in the English Premier League, all of which, with the exception of Christian Benteke at Aston Villa, occupy spots at the very top of the table.

    The most frightening aspect of this team is its age.

    Just five of Wilmots’ squad is over the age of 26, with the average age of the current squad a mere 24 years.

    The side also possesses great depth. In goal Wilmots’ has the luxury of choosing between Athletico Madrid’s promising Thibaut Courtois or the consistent hands of Liverpool’s Simon Mignolet.

    Courtois’ performances in his three seasons at Athletico have been exceptional. Last season the young talent conceded just 30 goals in 37 games for the Spanish side and was awarded the Ricardo Zamora trophy for the goalkeeper in the Spanish Primera division who has the smallest goals conceded per game ratio.

    Mignolet has been equally impressive for Liverpool since his summer transfer from Sunderland and his performances have been a major contributor to Liverpool’s current position in the table.

    At the back the Belgians also look strong, with established Premier League defenders Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany, Tottenham’s Jan Vertonghen and Arsenal’s Thomas Vermaelen, as well as the experienced head of 36-year-old Bayern Munich defender Daniel van Buyten.

    In the midfield the Belgians’ depth continues with more established Premier League players in Mousa Dembele, Marouane Fellaini, Eden Hazard, Nacer Chadli, and Kevin De Bruyne, as well as Porto’s Steven Defour and Zenit’s Axel Witsel.

    Up front is where Belgium look really deadly. Mark Wilmots’ side possess two of the deadliest strikers in the Premier League in Romelu Lukaku and Christian Benteke.

    Last season, on loan from Chelsea at West Bromwich Albion, Lukaku racked up 17 goals, the sixth highest in the league and more than any of the strikers he left behind at Chelsea.

    And now on a new loan spell with Everton, Lukaku has continued to impress, leaving many questioning why on Earth Chelsea boss José Mourinho sent him out on loan yet again.

    Benteke has proven he is also prolific. The big forward attracted interest from European giants Inter Milan and Tottenham Hotspur after netting 23 goals last season for Aston Villa.

    Belgium’s qualifying campaign for next year’s World Cup in Brazil was nothing short of impressive. The side came through the campaign unbeaten, netting 18 goals and only conceding four.

    Along the way Wilmots’ team dispatched the likes of Croatia and Serbia comfortably and only really slipped up with a draw at home to an improving Wales side.

    Many argue Belgium’s qualifying group was relatively easy, however when we compare Belgium to the performances of Portugal, who also had a relatively straightforward qualifying group, we can see Belgium’s qualification was a job very well done.

    A surprising fact is the success of the Belgian national team has come without any considerable rise in the Belgian Pro League.

    The league has struggled over the years to establish itself as a top league among Europe’s big leagues and only boasts Anderlecht among this year’s Champions League competition.

    Aside from Anderlecht’s UEFA Cup victory in 1983, Belgian clubs have had little success on the European stage, however smaller teams such as F.C. Genk, Standard Liege and Club Brugge K.V. have also represented Belgium in the Champions League and Europa League but have failed to have any serious impact.

    A reality of the Belgium squad is the majority of the players have been developed outside of Belgium.

    Despite the minority of its national league, the Belgium national team looks a real force heading to Brazil in 2014.

    With a strong blend of pace, power and experience and some real superstars among its roster, don’t rule out the boys nicknamed the Red Devils to be there or thereabouts come crunch time.

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    The Crowd Says (20)

    • November 17th 2013 @ 9:42am
      Steve said | November 17th 2013 @ 9:42am | ! Report

      “Just five of Wilmots’ squad is over the age of 26”

      Belgium are good, but the above phrase is why they are little chance of actually winning the 2014 World Cup. To win the World Cup, you need a solid core of 26-31 year olds. Belgium have some great youngsters, but they do not have enough plays with that experience.

      Add to that, European teams traditionally find it harder at WC’s in South America. Of course history means nothing, but I do think the South American teams are a bit underrated, as Chile and Colombia (who just defeated Belgium 2-0 in Brussels) have shown.

      I think the favourites are between Brazil, Argentina and Germany, with the European superhouses like Spain, Italy, Netherlands on the same level as Colombia, Chile and Uruguay.

      • Roar Guru

        November 17th 2013 @ 12:59pm
        Patrick Hargreaves said | November 17th 2013 @ 12:59pm | ! Report

        Agree, Belgium are definitely the best of the rest of Europe, but the Chilean team is way underrated. If it was in Europe possibly, but I think to many South Americans have good squads to allow for teams like Belgium into the semis.

        But if they make the round of 16…

        • November 22nd 2013 @ 6:20am
          Blondo said | November 22nd 2013 @ 6:20am | ! Report

          Spain in 2010: Busquets (21), Pedro (22) Fabregas (23), Pique (23), Ramos (24), Silva (24), Navas (24), etc. We saw their other young Spaniards play confidently and e.g. Iniesta (26) wasn’t that old too. Only Germany had a string of exciting matches in an otherwise boring WC and IIRC their young squad did well but was unlucky to run into another more or less young squad: Muller (20), Kroos (20), Badstuber (21), Ozil (21), Boateng (21), Khedira (23), Neuer (24), Schweinsteiger (25), … France, Brazil, … you’ll see that ‘just 5 older guys’ is more than plenty and in the heat & humidity of Brazil you’d like a low average age … guys that suffer less fatigue and recuperate quickly.

          PS Belgium’s probable XI in Brazil: Kompany (28), Vermaelen (28), Vertonghen (27), Alderweireld (25), Witsel (25), Fellaini (26), Dembele (26), Hazard (23), KDB (23), Benteke (23) won’t be the youngest squad in 2014 (+ look how age is spread from the back 4 to the pacy young guns up front). Mignolet is 5 years older than Courtois yet that young GK won the Zamora trophy, Spanish Cup, … he even was a key player when Athletico won their European title. Before asserting they have limited experience … look at their background and you’ll see 16yo banging them in with ease at European level or like Hazard putting Lille on the map and being celebrated with individual trophies & records. Experience isn’t Belgiums weakness … other flaws are more likely to prevent a truly deep run … QFs is a realistic objective and anything more will be amazing.

    • November 17th 2013 @ 1:40pm
      Robbie Mase said | November 17th 2013 @ 1:40pm | ! Report

      I couldn’t agree more. People will discount them simply because they aren’t traditional European “heavyweights”. They will be the surprise team of the World Cup. I could see them making the semi-finals if they have a good run.

      I think there will be quite a few surprises at this World Cup – but from teams in Europe and South America like Belgium, Switzerland, Colombia and Uruguay, those not usually considered the “heavyweights”.

      I can’t see any of the teams from other confederations doing particularly well. In terms of Asia, realistically our best hope is Japan. They have a lot of talent and can compete with the best when they’re on song but they simply can’t seem to kill off games and opposition (I’m thinking of the Confederations Cup and the Socceroos – Japan game at Saitama Stadium)

    • November 17th 2013 @ 10:18pm
      Vas Venkatramani said | November 17th 2013 @ 10:18pm | ! Report

      It really depends on how well they gel. Countless teams with top individuals have fallen by the wayside because they were unable to team up properly. The most recent example of this was Holland during Euro12.

      Belgium should be expected at least to advance past their group, but then it’s a lottery depending on who they come up against. Squad depth during national tournaments is less essential when compared to having a fully functioning core base of 14-15 players all in decent nick who can do the job on the day.

    • November 17th 2013 @ 11:01pm
      Adrian said | November 17th 2013 @ 11:01pm | ! Report

      Belgiums success depends on how the pool they are in and how much is sucked out during pool play, skills, age are on their side, however, experience is lacking on the highest levels and during crunch time that could be the telling factor.

    • Roar Guru

      November 18th 2013 @ 12:54pm
      HardcorePrawn said | November 18th 2013 @ 12:54pm | ! Report

      I’m not sure I’d describe the Belgians as dark horses: they were one of the first European nations to qualify for Brazil 2014, topping a table that included a couple of (usually) decent sides in Croatia and Serbia, as well as the potentially brilliant Wales (and if ever a nation needed a decent manager to exploit their individual talents it’s that one).

      I’ve also heard it said that Belgium are one of the most expensively assembled squads in the world (if we take into account the value of the individual players’ transfers to their current clubs).

      Where Belgium might have problems at the World Cup is their propensity to implode along national lines, rather like the Netherlands have been known to do, and even Spain have done in the past.
      If they remain a unified squad though, and can avoid the likes of Spain and Argentina, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see them make the semi-finals at least.

    • Roar Pro

      November 18th 2013 @ 2:26pm
      Eddy Bramley said | November 18th 2013 @ 2:26pm | ! Report

      Good points there HardcorePrawn. I refer to them as a Dark Horse because we’ve never really seen a Belgium side (since the 80’s) really compete in the latter stages of a major tournament like I think this team will. Your point about how expensive their side is is interesting but realistically it bears no significance on the international stage.

      Like others have mentioned, I think they could potentially slip up due to a lack of experience. However, with a side full of such young talent comes a no fear attitude and a huge amount of confidence so potentially the youth and lack of experience could be a positive factor for the Belgians. I guess we’ll find out in June.

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