Belgium was once seen as a potential dark horse contender for the 2014 World Cup. That is, pundits and observers and your friend with a blog all said that despite not being a traditional power in world soccer, thanks to a "golden generation," the wealth of quality available to coach Marc Wilmots meant that the Red Devils could cause some problems to the usual favorites. Then everyone kept saying this, and the narrative around Belgium's potential evolved from dangerous outsider to genuine challenger.
That narrative was bolstered when Belgium won its UEFA qualifying group, secured one of the eight top seeds in the World Cup and was handed a relatively easy group draw of Algeria, Russia and South Korea. Three wins later, Belgium is in the second round against a USA side that was thoroughly roughed up in its narrow escape from Group G.
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So the question is, what stars can American fans expect to see when their boys take on this barnstorming Benelux brigade?
Starting from the back, Belgium has a goalkeeping prodigy whose rapidly rising star already outshines even that of the USA's reliable Tim Howard. Thibault Courtois is technically contracted to English Premier League side Chelsea, but the 6-foot-6 Genk product — who only turned 22 last month — has made his name on loan, helping Atletico Madrid to a Europa League win, a Copa del Rey triumph, the La Liga title and an appearance in the UEFA Champions League final. His backup is Liverpool starter Simon Mignolet.
In front of Courtois, club teammate Toby Alderweireld is Belgium's starting right back. On the left, Arsenal captain Thomas Vermaelen and his close friend Jan Vertonghen of Tottenham have each started games in this World Cup. In the middle, the chosen pairing has been the side's oldest player, Bayern Munich's Daniel van Buyten, and perhaps its most important, Vincent Kompany, while Zenit St. Petersburg stalwart Nicholas Lombaerts is the designated backup.
Kompany, 28, is the captain for both Belgium and his club side, English champion Manchester City. In a country divided (sometimes bitterly) between the Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north and the Francophone Wallonia in the south, Kompany is an inspirational leader and rallying point, a speaker of four languages, a child of a Congolese immigrant and a Belgian native, born and raised in the central, cosmopolitan capital city of Brussels.
An immigrant legacy is readily apparent in Belgium's midfield and striking corps, as much an influence on the squad as Dutch or French. In addition to Kompany, Axel Witsel has ancestral links to Martinique. He was purchased by Zenit St. Petersburg for 40 million euros in 2012. The father of Tottenham's Mousa Dembele, an attacking midfielder who combines physical power with near-perfect technique, is of Malian origin.
Central powerhouse Marouane Fellaini, who followed coach David Moyes from Everton to Manchester United for 27.5 million pounds, was born in the Brussels suburb of Etterbeek to Moroccan parents, a secondary nationality shared by winger Nacer Chadli. Fellaini's club teammate, 19-year-old Adnan Januzaj, could have played for Albania, Turkey or Serbia. England also expressed interest in naturalizing the rising star.
Another 19-year-old, forward Divock Origi, has emerged as a super sub. He scored the winner in Belgium's 1-0 defeat of Russia, and had a big part in Vertonghen's winner over Korea. He was pursued by the Kenyan national team before committing to the nation of his birth.
The team's star striker is Romelu Lukaku, whose father Roger twice represented Zaire at the African Cup of Nations. (A second Congolese-Belgian striker who would have been in the squad had he not been injured is Aston Villa's Christian Benteke.) Lukaku made his professional debut for Anderlecht at the age of 16 and scored 39 goals in 95 games in his first two full seasons. He was snapped up by Chelsea in 2011 and has prospered on loan: 17 goals in 35 Premier League games for West Bromwich Albion in 2012-13 were followed up with 15 in 31 for Everton this past season.
Another Chelsea player, 23-year-old creative star Eden Hazard, started both of Belgium's first two games, picking up an opening-game assist. Although he's been criticized for a lack of hustle by Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho, he's a world-class dribbler with a knack for scoring. And he should be, having cost the London club a reported 32 million pounds.
Across the field from Hazard, the right wing position has been occupied by Chadli or goal-scoring wide man Dries Mertens of Napoli. Mertens, who scored the winner as a sub in Belgium's World Cup opener against Algeria, has recorded double-digit goal tallies in six of his last seven seasons, for four different clubs.
The man linking the Belgian midfield and offense has often been 22-year-old Kevin de Bruyne. Another Belgian youngster snapped up by Chelsea and farmed out on loan, he joined Bundesliga side Wolfsburg in January for 18 million pounds. He provided the assist for Belgium's opening goal of the tournament, Fellaini's equalizer against Algeria, and was named Man of the Match by FIFA.
Providing depth is Everton forward Kevin Mirallas. The 26-year-old hasn't been hugely prolific in the Premier League, but he has previous history with the USA, having scored the opener in a 4-2 win over the Americans in Cleveland last year.
Despite the wealth of talent and impressive 3-for-3 result the group stage, Belgium has yet to really find its groove in Brazil. A comeback was required against Algeria after Vertonghen needlessly conceded a penalty. The other two games were won 1-0, and none of the big-name attacking stars, Hazard, Lukaku, Witsel, Dembele or De Bruyne, has scored a goal. Midfielder Steven Defour was sent off against South Korea and will miss the match against the USA.
He could be joined on the bench by some important players. Kompany and Vermaelen, each captain of a Premier League club and the team's two best defenders, have been struggling for fitness. Congo-born fullback Anthony Vanden Borre fractured his leg against South Korea and will miss the rest of the World Cup.
Their absences could put more pressure on a Belgian team already somewhat thin on experience: 36-year-old van Buyten is the only player in the Belgium squad over 30 years of age and one of just two (along with Kompany) to make at least 60 international appearances. Against Germany, there were six over-30 American starters, and the Yanks boast three players who have hit the 100-cap mark.
Van Buyten is also the only Belgian player with double-digit international goals to his name, with exactly 10. The USA has four, including the 39-goal Clint Dempsey, who's already scored twice in this tournament.
While the USA may have a number of intangible assets and fewer injuries and suspensions, the truth is that Belgium is dollar-for-dollar, man-to-man, a more talented side. If the Americans are to repeat the glory of 2002 and make the quarterfinals, it won't be easy.