Nickname: Red Devils
Schedule: June 17 vs. Algeria, June 22 vs. Russia, June 26 vs. South Korea
World Cup History: Semifinals (1986), Round of 16 (1990, 1994, 2002)
Rankings: FIFA (11), Elo (18)
Winning Odds: 20-1
The Belgians last qualified in 2002. But, with their “golden generation,” many are touting them as a tournament dark horse. So many, in fact, they are now among the favorites. Belgium’s list of names is impressive. But these names have little track record of playing well in the national team shirt and playing well together. They have almost zero experience playing in international tournaments.
Qualifying Form: Belgium finished first in UEFA Quaifying Group A, with an 8-0-2 record and a +14 goal difference. That was through a difficult group, which included Croatia, Serbia, Scotland and Wales.
Coach: Marc Wilmots. The 45-year-old is a former Belgium international player. He became an assistant with the national team in 2009, before taking over full time in 2012. His nickname at Schalke was Das Kampfschwein, the War Pig.
Tactics: The Belgians play a 4-2-3-1. They are robust through the spine, with ample attacking talent.
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Player to Watch: Eden Hazard. Chelsea’s 23-year-old attacking midfielder was runner up to Luis Suarez for EPL Player of the Year. He’s the most gifted European player heading to Brazil besides Cristiano Ronaldo. Hazard has never come through for Belgium, the way he has at club level. But, if he does in Brazil, Belgium have no ceiling.
Squad: Virtually every Belgian player is into or entering his prime. Only two of the 23-man squad are older than 28. Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, 22, is Europe’s next great goalkeeper, if not the best already. He just led Atletico Madrid to the Primera Liga title and the Champions League Final.
Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen will partner in central defense. Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen are the two fullbacks. That’s a stout, experienced back line. But, it’s also four natural central defenders. Quick players down the wings could trouble them.
Belgium’s midfield is strong. Marouane Fellaini and $54 million man Axel Witsel should be the two deep lying midfielders. The three in front of them are likely Hazard with youngsters Kevin De Bruyne and Nacer Chadli. The War Pig has multiple, viable options to choose from at every attacking position.
One major question is up front. Belgium’s first-choice forward, Aston Villa’s Christian Benteke, ruptured his Achilles tendon. His presumed replacement, Romelu Lukaku, is an eager, goal scorer. But he’s still quite raw positionally and doesn’t link play as well.
Group Outlook: Group H is a relatively benign group. If the Belgians play well, they should be able to handle Russia, South Korea and Algeria rather easily. Tough for them will be the Round of 16 and beyond. Winning the group would set up the second-place opponent from Group G. Belgium would then (potentially) have to beat Portugal/Germany, Argentina, Spain to reach the final.
Notable WAG: Polly Parsons is an English TV presenter/lingerie model. She is involved with Belgium defender Thomas Vermaelen.
Arbitrary Belgian Power Rankings: 1. Hercule Poirot 2. Georges Lemaitre 3. Peter Paul Rubens 4. Adolph Sax 5. Eddy Merckx
[Photos via USA Today Sports]