By Ben Hayward
The hipsters' choice. Belgium have emerged from the shadows of traditionally more glamorous neighbours Netherlands and are now fifth favourites to win the World Cup in Brazil next summer. Along with the hip has come the hype - but will the Belgian waffle be backed up by success and swagger in 2014?
Much like Borussia Dortmund at club level, it has become cool to like Belgium. Years ago, most football fans would have struggled to name a single footballer from the country. In fact, for a time, perhaps their most famous footballer was a man who gained recognition when his career was already over: revolutionary rule-changer Jean-Marc Bosman. Now, though, many of the continent's top teams proudly boast a Belgian on their books.
Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, owned by Chelsea but on loan at Atletico Madrid for a third successive season, is considered to be among the world's finest shot-stoppers; Manchester City's Vincent Kompany is one the greatest centre-backs around; Jan Vertonghen's reputation as a fine defender is growing at Tottenham and saw him scouted as a possible signing by Barcelona in the summer; Romelu Lukaku's fantastic form at Everton has made Jose Mourinho look foolish for allowing the striker to leave Stamford Bridge on loan this term; Eden Hazard was short-listed for the PFA Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year awards after his debut season in the Premier League with the Blues; Daniel Van Buyten, at 35, is entering his seventh campaign at Bayern Munich; Aston Villa's Christian Benteke is one of the most impressive young forwards around; midfielder Marouane Fellaini was Manchester United's big summer signing; and Thomas Vermaelen is the captain of Arsenal.
And that's just the start. Mousa Dembele and Nacer Chadli have impressed for Spurs, Alex Witsel is a hero at Zenit, Steven Defour is building his reputation at Porto, Dries Mertens is finding his feet at Napoli, Kevin De Bruyne another exciting talent at Chelsea. Cagliari midfielder Radja Nainggolan - desired by a host of Europe's best teams and tipped to join Juventus - can't even get into the national squad. The list goes on - and suddenly Belgium boast a conveyor belt of talent to match almost any other side in Europe, while they have also become the hipsters' choice due to their small-nation status, their attractive football and cult features such as Fellaini's afro hairstyle. Famous for beer, chocolate, female tennis stars, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Tintin and the Smurfs, Belgium now proudly presents a new group of heroes: their international footballers.
Nevertheless, this young team remains inexperienced at the highest level. Currently five points clear in a group also containing Croatia, Serbia, Scotland, Macedonia and Wales, Belgium look likely to seal qualification for a World Cup for the first time since 2002 - the last time the Red Devils progressed to a major tournament.
Then, under Robert Waseige, the squad featured 15 Belgium-based players, with only eight playing their football abroad (Van Buyten at Marseille, goalkeeper Geert De Vlieger at Netherlands side Willem II, midfielder Bart Goor at Hertha Berlin, full-back Eric Deflandre at Lyon, striker Branko Strupar at Derby County, with trio Nico Van Kerckhoven, captain Marc Wilmots - now the coach - and Sven Vermant all at Schalke in Germany). Hardly household names and, with the exception of Marseille and Lyon, not exactly elite teams either. Schalke, by the way, only managed fifth place in the Bundesliga in the season before that World Cup.
In 2002, Belgium's hopes ended with a 2-0 defeat and second-round exit to eventual winners Brazil. But in the South American country next summer, more will be expected. The Group A leaders have recently seen the odds on them winning the World Cup slashed from 100/1 to 12/1, making them fifth favourites (behind Brazil, Spain, Argentina and Germany) to walk off with the trophy next summer.
Such talk, however, seems premature. Belgium have won seven and drawn one of their eight group games in qualification, but could only manage a 1-1 tie at home to the only other top team in the sector, Croatia (their rivals in Zagreb on Friday), failed to beat France in a goalless friendly in Brussels back in August and lost 1-0 to England last year. Their only big scalp in that time, in fact, was a 4-2 win at home to Netherlands in what was Louis van Gaal's first game in charge. So hardly the stuff of champions just yet.
Time will tell if this Belgian generation goes down as one of the greats. Certainly Wilmots' side possess the players to make big waves at international level, but before they can be considered genuine World Cup contenders, this team must take on and beat the very best sides around. To live up to their new-found box-office billing, Belgium's hip must match the hype.
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