With a new seeding system threatening to turn the Fifa World Cup draw on its head, the team most coaches wanted to avoid in Bahia last December was Belgium.
That had nothing to do with the Belgians’ World Cup pedigree, which is not too shabby by the way. It had everything to do with Belgium’s quality.
Goalkeepers fit to play for Germany. Defenders Italy would be proud of. Attackers that would be automatic picks for the Dutch. And the team’s average age is only 25.
Belgium won’t be the only recognisable name making a long overdue return to world football’s prime event.
Like Colombia, they have been away from this stage more than a decade. And then the more important similarity: Belgium is where Colombia was going into the World Cup 20 years ago. A Colombia squad teeming with star players went to USA’94 touted as one of the main challengers.
They failed spectacularly; eliminated at the group stage. But physically imposing, technically excellent Belgium is unlikely to emulate them.
How they play: The Belgians are disciplined defensively and like to use their pace in attacking areas, but even when they are not attacking they have the personnel to control games, which they should have no problems doing against Group H opponents South Korea, Russia and Algeria.
Strengths: Most of Belgium’s riches are in central defence and attacking midfield areas, but there is depth in the goalkeeping area and quality, if not depth, in the striker department. With so much talent available to him, coach Marc Wilmots has more wiggle room than most to tweak his team to match or subdue an opponent.
Weaknesses: The Red Devils have been away from a major tournament since 2002, and that means inexperience is the foremost challenge.
It doesn’t help either that Belgium only managed 18 goals in 10 games in qualifying, which suggests that for all their attacking talent, they are quite goal-shy. Less significant is the absence of natural fullbacks in the side, forcing Wilmots to play central defenders out of position.
Star man: Eden Hazard’s pace and skill could prove the difference in the attack for Belgium. The Red Devils will be channeling everything positive through the Chelsea man.
One to watch: It is not often that teams, especially those that touted as an emerging force, have a goalkeeper ranking among the more outstanding players, but Thibaut Courtois does for Belgium.
Prospects: Belgium certainly won’t win the World Cup in Brazil; it has come four years too soon. But the Red Devils will certainly make an impression and should make the quarter finals.
How they qualified: Finished top of European qualifying Group A
World Cup Appearances: 6
World Cup Record: 1982 - Second round; 1986 - Semi-finals; 1990 - Second round; 1994 - Second round; 1998 - First round; 2002 - Second round
Overall Record: P27, W8, D11, L8
Best Performance: Fourth place in 1986
World Cup High: Leo van der Elst scoring the winning penalty to send Belgium to the semi-finals at Mexico’86
World Cup Low: A 3-0 humbling by Poland in the second group phase at Spain’82 for the World Cup debutants
World Cup Legend: Vincenzo “Enzo” Scifo, also known as the Little Pele appeared in four World Cups for Belgium
Probable Line-up: Thibaut Courtois, Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen, Vincent Kompany (captain), Nicolas Lombaerts, Axel Witsel, Kevin De Bruyne, Moussa Dembele, Eden Hazard, Marouane Fellaini, Romelu Lukaku
FIFA Ranking: 11
Coach: Marc Wilmots