(c)Hazard_planetf1dotcomThe First round of the World Cup 2014 Qualifiers concluded last week and the final standings of Group A surprised a few people. Belgium finished the group on top with 26 points, a tally outpaced only by Germany and Netherlands in their respective groups. It, however, also heralded the coming of age of the Belgian International side as many had predicted at the end of Euro 2012.

When we think of Belgium, we think of chocolates and Brussels sprouts but not football. The Belgians have always been under the shadow of their more illustrious neighbours. When one thinks of European football, countries like Spain, Germany, Netherlands, France and Italy come to mind. Seldom are Belgium counted in the same list. In light of this, their dominance in their group is all the more striking. The relevance of this result is made starker by the fact that less than 5 years ago, Belgium had slipped to 71 in the FIFA rankings. Today, the Red Devils (yes the Belgian Team shares that name with Manchester United) are being billed as the dark horses for next year’s football magnum opus to be held in Brazil. So what really brought about this change? Let’s try to find some answers.

The Belgian side today boasts of a healthy list of young and talented footballers. Fans of the English Premier League would be familiar with many of them. Between the sticks the duo of Thibaut Courtois, on loan to Atletico Madrid from Chelsea, and Simon Mignolet of Liverpool are more than enough cover that any manager could hope for. Both men are having a stellar season and opponents have been hard pressed to put goals past them. Mignolet has instilled a much needed sense of invulnerability at the Kop, allowing the team to spend more time attacking rather than defending. On the other hand, Courtois received a national call up when he was not even 20 in an international friendly making him the youngest goalkeeper to ever play for the national side. Just 21 years of age, Courtois is one of the most promising young goal keepers around the world and has already broken several club records while at Atletico, in addition to helping them beat Real Madrid after 14 years en route to the 2013 Copa del Rey final.

Manchester City captain and defender Vincent Kompany is considered by many to be one of the greatest centre backs in the world today. He has been a defensive rock at the back for City and his impact on the team is truly felt when he is out of play. He is partnered in the Belgian back four by Spurs’ star defender Jan Vertonghen and Arsenal skipper Thomas Vermaelen, who are establishing reputations of their own that have made others take notice and attracted transfer attention from clubs like Barcelona and Real Madrid. As though these three were not enough, Bayern Munich centre back Daniel van Buyten brings to the table an assured presence at the back and a constant goal scoring threat in the opponent’s 18 yard box.

Belgium are no slackers in midfield either. Chelsea duo Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne are two of the finest attacking and playmaking midfielders in the English Premier League. If Marc Wilmots needs a physical presence in midfield he can call upon the likes of Manchester United’s Marouanne Fellaini or Spurs’ powerhouse Mousa Dembele. Spurs midfielder Nacer Chadli brings the wing play element to the table for Belgium if they would wish to have one.

And if even the midfield stack fails to impress you then prepare to be awed by their forward line up. Everton’s Kevin Mirallas and Romelu Lukaku (on loan from Chelsea) and Aston Villa’s Christian Benteke do regular duty for the national side. These are the same names that figure on the Premier League’s scoring sheets week after week. In fact this listing almost makes one believe that the Belgian international side is a better English (representation) side than Roy Hodgson’s Three Lions themselves. Point to ponder.

Importantly, this change has not been overnight. Belgium has worked very hard for it. Belgium fell from its sunshine years in the late 80s to abject disappointments in the 90s capped by a ponderous first round exit in the 2000 Euro Championship. The Belgian FA took matters into their hands and drew up a 10 year plan to turn things around. Player development plans were made and shared with local clubs at every level from school to pro. A uniform 4-3-3 formation was employed across the board to enhance ball retention and positional flexibility between players. Although the Belgian team failed to qualify for the 2008 Euros and 2010 World Cup, their U-17 squad reached the semi-finals of the 2007 U-17 Euro Championship. These kids were products of the system instituted by Belgium FA in 2000. Eden Hazard and Christian Benteke were members of this squad. Today the same players are playing in the international team and performing at those lofty levels.

There is also another advantage of these changes made in Belgium. Clubs like Anderlecht, Genk, FC Brussels and Standard Liege have moved up into the UEFA competitions like Champions League and Europa League. This in turn brings them into the notice of the big boys of club football who then pick up the talented players from these sides to play for them. This gives the players an opportunity to play with and against some of the most talented professional footballers of the world. There can be no arguments about how much experience Eden Hazard would gain playing alongside a wily old pro like Lampard or Terry or how Fellaini and his personal growth would be impacted when he rubs shoulders with players like Rooney and RvP on a daily basis. Add to this the world class medical and training facilities available at almost all these clubs and the players truly get a chance to achieve their full potential and much more.

Marc Wilmots and his team now stand on the cusp of greatness having achieved qualification to the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Rest assured their playing style would have been studied thoroughly and come June 2014 the gloves would be off. The Belgian side has a lot of talent and promise and the young squad has a lot of belief in its own skills. They also, however, have their own demons to battle. First, is the demon of expectations. Sports writers across the world have begun comparing this side to those of the late 80s that regularly reached the last four of major tournaments. Second, is the demon of inexperience. While Belgium has truly been marvelous in the group qualifying stage, their opposition was Croatia, Serbia, Scotland, Wales and Macedonia. Croatia and Wales provided some amount of resistance to Belgium and drew a match each against them. The other teams in the group, however, rolled over too easily. Earlier, a struggling French side held Belgium at home to a goalless draw in a friendly match and last year the Red Devils lost to England in a friendly fixture. They are yet to face power houses like Germany and Spain or even the 2014 WC hosts Brazil and in fact their only major scalp in the past couple of years has been Netherlands whom they defeated 4-2 in August 2012.

Overall, the Belgians are yet to face any real competition and in the heat of competition when the situation is a tight one, the rawness and inexperience of the young side is likely to show in comparison to more seasoned campaigners in the Spanish, German and English squad. What can, however, be said is that exciting times lie ahead for Belgium.

Belgium can draw inspiration from the exceptionally young side that Germany successfully fielded in the last edition of the competition. The squad that earned the bronze medal in that competition are the same that will take to the field next year as one of the top favourites. Marc Wilmots’ team may not be completely ready but they have a very good headstart over compatriots and if all their players live up to their talent, they will surely regain the lofty heights achieved by their predecessors more than 25 years ago. It’s enough to say that Roy Hodgson would give his eye-teeth for even a few of those youngsters that don the red jersey for Belgium.

– Siddharth Kumar Singh