Spain, the back-to-back European Championship winners and current holders of the FIFA World Cup, have been unbeatable. Their attractive style of play encompasses a combination of passing the opposition to death whilst constantly pressing the opposition, and starving them of any attacking impetus. However, they are starting to show signs of mortality after they laboured until the final of their second continental victory, received a crushing three- nil defeat to Brazil and suffered a nervy penalty shoot-out win against Cesare Prandelli’s Italy to get there. As the utter dominance of Spain begins to fade, Let’s look at the national side that could be their successors as the next monarchs of world soccer.
Perennial underperformers, Belgium have been poor in recent years with their national side having not qualified for a major tournament since the 2002 World Cup. Their success has matched the size of their country and not the soccer tradition that was created by their golden teams in the 1980’s and 90’s that came second in Euro 1980 and fourth in the 1986 World Cup. However, it seems the tide has now begun to turn, with dozens of incredible players coming out of the Flemish country of late. The vast majority are now plying their honed craft in the English Premier League.
Marouane Fellaini and Christian Benteke have been cultured in sterling academies such as Standard Liege and Genk, while many others learned their trade abroad, moving to far flung European academies at tender ages to pursue a career at a higher standard of sporting prowess. Those players include Jan Vertonghen, Moussa Dembele and Nacer Chadli, who all moved to the Netherlands. Vertonghen and Dembele were both tutored at arguably the most prestigious academy of world football other than Barcelona’s La Masia academy — Ajax. Interestingly Johann Cruyff played a huge part in the current set up of both academies. Others players such as Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois were instructed in France, England and Spain.
There must also be a degree of luck or destiny in the coming together of so many a sublime and athletic players currently vying for a place in the starting 11 with a world-class crop of Chadli, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin Mirallas, Dries Mertens and Bayern Munich veteran Daniel van Buyten regularly warming the bench.
In goal they have an embarrassment of riches with La Liga goalkeeper of the year Thibaut Courtois, who some see as the best goalkeeping prospect in the world. Whilst, experienced Premier League goalkeeper and recently instated Kop hero Simon Mignolet is another option. The defence also have the potential to be watertight with arguably the best defensive playing staff in international football in front of these two shot-stoppers. The strength and class of Tottenham and Manchester City’s indispensable centre halves Vertonghen and Kompany is crucial alongside let back and Arsenal captain Vermaelan and instrumental Ajax defender Toby Alderweirald. In midfield the quality and style of play is dictated by the irrepressible trickery and guile of Chelsea duo Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne, the power of Witsel, and smoothness of Dembele. Finally, up top they have three of the most sought after players of this window in the awe-inspiring potency of Benteke, Lukaku and Porto striker Mertens.
In the world rankings, Belgium is ranked the tenth best team in the world. However, you cannot read too much into this, as they have not been in any major tournaments recently. Their rebuild was started after dismal failed qualifying rounds for the 2006, 2008 and 2010 World Cups), and this process has slightly skewed their ranking. They also now look certain to qualify into the World Cup as they sit top of their group, three points clear of second placed Croatia while Serbia in third place are an insurmountable distance away.
This success doesn’t show any sign of stopping, with victories for the Belgian U19’s over England, Portugal and Croatia in the U19 European Championships. This team featured names such as Thorgan Hazard (Chelsea) and Paul-José Mpoku (Tottenham Hotspur).
Next year in Brazil, it may be a good idea to fly the flag for the Flemish country in 2014 as many of their more accomplished players are in the Premier League. It may be as close as we ever get to a home side winning the World Cup.
Marc Wilmots’s side will very much be the dark horses of this competition. They have a brilliant first team squad that oozes class and technical ability and strength in depth that other nations can only envy. They have a team of leaders, experience, physicality and skill.
However, it may be argued that Belgium is yet to be tested in a big tournament. Understandably, Belgium isn’t as fancied as the traditional heavyweights that are favorites: Brazil, Germany, Spain, Italy, etc. This may point to an improved squad at FIFA World Cup 2018 due to the strength in depth as well as the youth of the current squad is in their favor. Perhaps if they fail in Rio, Russia will await them with open arms. However, one thing is certain; they will be a dominant force in the world of football in the near future.
The nascent potential within the squad is undeniable and the escalating domestic club experiences may cancel out any doubts over international experience. It is worth remembering that anything can happen in a cup competition… except England winning a penalty shoot-out!