Today’s unspectacular victory at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff against Wales by 0-2 might be the signal that this promising Belgian team, with a potential to match or even overcome the achievements of that team of 1986, might not just be a promise but a reality.
Their World Cup qualifying group includes Croatia and Serbia as their biggest threats and it’s completed by Wales, Scotland and Macedonia FYR, all of which should provide beatable opposition. Belgium haven’t qualified for a major tournament since the World Cup of 2002 in Japan and South Korea. They finished second in the group phases behind hosts Japan and ahead of Russia and Tunisia, albeit only winning one game (against Russia 3-2) and drawing the other two, only to be knocked out in the next round by eventual winners Brazil by two goals to nil. That team contained players such as Marc Wilmots, Bart Goor, a young Daniel Van Buyten and the promising striker Wesley Sonck, who didn’t manage to fulfill his early goalscoring promise for Genk and was generally a flop at Ajax and then at Borussia Mönchengladbach before moving back to Belgium in 2007 after battling injuries and bad luck. While these players were good players in their day, Belgium’s squad of today has players who are arguably better than those and who could go on to achieve great things if they carry on on this path.
Starting in goal, Thibaut Courtois is the undisputed number 1. After being bought by Chelsea from Genk in 2011, he was loaned to Atlético Madrid and had a successful campaign at the Vicente Calderón, winning the Europa League and producing some great displays. At 6ft 6″ and of only 20 years of age, Courtois has a very promising future ahead of him and while he has been loaned for another season at Atlético, it seems inevitable that he’ll be recalled by the Stamford Bridge club when Petr Čech calls it a day. His backup in the Belgian squad is Simon Mignolet (24), who came from nowhere to take the number 1 spot at the Stadium of Light for Sunderland and has already amassed over 60 appearances for the Black Cats in the last two and a bit seasons, as well as 6 for the national team.
Defense is perhaps where Belgium come the strongest. Their captain and leader, Vincent Kompany, arguably one of the best centre backs in the Premier League and Europe, and also an offensive threat from set pieces. His leadership and commanding skills, despite being only 26 years of age, are invaluable and he was Player of the Season at Manchester City and of the Premier League last year. Partnering him is where Marc Wilmots, now the Belgian manager, has the most to choose from. The one most likely to do so is Arsenal’s Thomas Vermaelen. Having overcome a serious injury that only saw him play a handful of matches in 2010/2011, the 26 year-old managed to stay relatively fit last year and is determined to be an integral part of Arsenal’s campaign this year. We travel from one end of North London to the other, to Arsenal’s bitter rivals Tottenham Hotspur, the club of Jan Vertonghen (25), their new signing from Ajax for a fee believed to be around £10m. Able to play in central defense, left full back or defensive midfield, Vertonghen is one of those versatile players that can be of so much use to the manager, even attracting the interest of FC Barcelona who were looking to cover the position of Éric Abidal, due to his versatility. Still at Ajax is Toby Alderweireld (23), who partnered Vertonghen last year in defense and he will most surely be the next one to leave the Amsterdam ArenA if he carries on with his solid performances. Nearing the end of his career at the age of 34 is Daniel Van Buyten, who will find it hard to hold a place for Bayern München this season due to the high competition for places. Despite that, the 6ft 6″ Vice-Captain, along with Vermaelen, will be an excellent influence for the young defenders in the Belgian squad and a reliable replacement if he is called upon. At left back, Wilmots seems to be going with Anderlecht’s Guillaume Gillet. On the bench, Nicolas Lombaerts will be looking to slot into the left-back spot if a centre back is missing and Vertonghen moves inside.
Belgium’s midfield also has quite a few impressive candidates. Marouane Fellaini’s (24) record £15M transfer to Everton from Standard Liège in 2008, after an impressive Champions League qualifying round campaign with Les Rouches, seemed to weigh heavily on him for the first few season, but he’s improved with time and he seems unstoppable this season, using his height to bring people into play, to command the midfield and to score important goals like he did against Manchester United in this season’s Premier League opener at Goodison Park, which finished 1-0 to the Toffees. A bit further forward from Fellaini should be Eden Hazard’s, Chelsea’s star signing this summer from Lille for a staggering £32m. This left-footed magician seems to have adapted quickly to life in England and has already made a huge impression for Roberto Di Matteo’s team, and his eye for a threaded pass, a goal and his excellent first touch, accompanied by the fact that he’s only 21 years old, seems to hold a promising future for him and it all seems to lead to the fact that he will be the star of this Belgian squad for many years to come, as well as the main attacking reference. Think of Belgium’s version of Spain’s Silva or Germany’s Özil. Also residing in London is Moussa Dembélé (25), who recently moved from Fulham to Tottenham Hotspur and who has already made an impression there, scoring on his debut in the 1-1 draw against Norwich. This exquisite left-footed player already showed signs of huge class for AZ Alkmaar and many were surprised when he moved to Fulham in 2008, since he had attracted the attention of clubs of a higher reputation. His move to Tottenham should definitely put him in the limelight this season and we should be seeing the best of Dembélé so far. The one player who promised the most and who perhaps has not made the step yet is Steven Defour. Manchester United were reportedly behind the former Standard Liège midfield maestro for many years, although no specific contact was made. Standard’s high valuation of him put many clubs off him and, in the end, he moved to Portuguese side Porto in 2011 for £5m, a fraction of the fees that had been mentioned in the previous years. Whether he can regain that reputation at the Stadio do Dragão is yet to be seen, as is his starting place in the Belgian side. Still a young player at 24, Defour has time on his side to yet become the player that everyone thought he would be. Recently in the news, Axel Witsel’s record move from Benfica to Zenit St. Petersburg for a mind-blowing £32m, has been all over the news and will definitely shed the spotlight on the former Standard Liège player. Able to play on the right wing or behind the striker, Witsel, 23, will have a big role to play for Luciano Spalletti’s side in this year’s Champions League and will also be one of the biggest attacking assets for Belgium in the World Cup qualification group stage. Lastly, another Chelsea acquisition who has been loaned out will be waiting on the sidelines for his chance on the wings or attacking midfield for Belgium. Genk’s Kevin de Bruyne was signed by Chelsea in the summer of 2011 but stayed on loan for one more year at his club. This summer he was loaned out to Werder Bremen and he will be looking for a chance to make an impression at the Weserstadion, since Thomas Schaaf’s new young Bremen side is giving youth a chance, what seems to be a perfect environment for De Bruyne’s development, still only 21 years of age.
Up front, Belgium seemed to have one of the biggest stars in their hands. Romelu Lukaku stormed on the footballing world stage with Anderlecht as a 16 year-old in 2009, with his powerful physique and excellent finishing skills, netting him over 30 goals in his first two full seasons at Constant Vanden Stock Stadium. Finally, after many rumours of Europe’s biggest clubs after him, Lukaku signed for Chelsea for £13m in the summer of 2011, although his impact wasn’t as first thought. Making three appearances only from the bench under André Villas Boas, when the Portuguese was sacked by Roman Abramovich, new manager Roberto Di Matteo didn’t have Lukaku in his plans and played him only six more times in the season, without a goal to his name. Such was his disappointment after being left out of the squad for the Champions League final, Lukaku famously stated publicly that he hadn’t celebrated the win because he didn’t feel part of the team. Lukaku was duly loaned out this season to West Bromwich Albion, and already scored on his debut in the 3-0 victory against Liverpool. There’s no doubt that Lukaku has tremendous potential and could easily develop into the modern-day Didier Drogba if given a chance, something which wasn’t done for him at Stamford Bridge. The other main striker for Belgium is new Everton signing Kévin Mirallas. Previously at Olympiakos, 24 year-old Mirallas amassed 20 goals last season for the Greek side and this prompted a £5,3m move to Goodison Park this summer. At 5ft 10″, Mirallas could provide excellent support for Lukaku in the national team playing off him and both of them should develop a good partnership in the upcoming qualifiers. Also in the frame is PSV’s Dries Mertens (25), who plays on the left flank or channel in attack. His two assists against Wales might give him a starting place in the squad and his 27 goals last year for the Eindhoven side make him one of the biggest attacking threats in Dutch football. Waiting for his chance on the sidelines will be powerful Aston Villa striker Christian Benteke. After an impressive season for Genk, 21 year-old Benteke has arrived in Birmingham and many are hoping he will provide the goals that Paul Lambert’s side desperately need, despite that the Scottish manager has yet to include him in any match squad.
As we can see, most of the stars of this Belgian side barely go over 25 years of age, with still their best years ahead of them. With the leadership and experience of players like Kompany, the experience in the big leagues of players like Fellaini, and the number of goals scored by players like Mirallas and Mertens added to the promise of players such as Hazard and Lukaku, it can only mean that Belgium might have a squad on their hands who could go on to big things on the international stage. Belgium is most definitely on the up, and this qualifying campaign should see them get their ticket to Brazil 2014, which will be an achievement in itself. Whether there they can emulate the likes of Pfaff, Gerets, Scifo or Ceulemans remains to be seen but there’s little doubt that the current generation of Belgian players already have a huge reputation without having proved themselves on the international stage, with tens of millions of pounds being spent on them and proving important players for teams in the Premier League and the Spanish League among others. What is certain though, is that it would be a refreshing touch to see a new country on the world stage that can upset the likes of Spain, German, Italy, Brazil, Argentina and the usual suspects in world cups. However, a potential matchup against the Netherlands could be the most attractive match, although they seem to have taken on a renovation period with new manager Louis Van Gaal, fielding a bunch of inexperienced players in these qualifiers. That could mean that Belgium could cause an upset against them, although if you analyse it, it wouldn’t be such a thing, and that would mean a hell of a lot to this country of only 11m people. I for one do hope that, come October 2013, they will have their passport to Brazil and we’ll be able to see the rise of one of the most exciting sides to come out of European football for many years.