Belgium: Euro 2016 contenders?

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For as long as most of us can remember, Belgium has been known as a nation that is more associated with Stella Artois and chocolate than being a breeding ground for some of Europe’s top players - but that all seems to have changed lately.

Belgium has produced some of the stand-out players in the Premier League this upcoming season. Jan Vertonghen, Vincent Komany, Eden Hazard, Marouane Fellaini, Simon Mignolet, Christian Benteke and Romelu Lukaku were all outstanding last season.

Belgium have slowly been producing more and more quality players over the years, and the national team could be ready to step out of the shadows at next year’s World Cup finals.

Rather impressively, Belgium are ranked sixth in the FIFA rankings, 11 places in front of England. Until Brazil recently won the Confederations Cup, Belgium were ranked a massive ten places ahead of the five-time World Cup winners from South America (who now sit in a much more respectable ninth place just in case you were wondering).

Belgium have qualified for 11 out of 19 World Cups; a statistic that is in itself impressive, even more so when you consider they qualified for six successive World Cups from 1986 to 2002 (an achievement only bettered by Spain who are currently on seven successive tournaments). The combined value of Belgium’s national team is third in the world, behind only Brazil and Portugal.

Now, you would think after reading all these facts and achievements that Belgium would be a footballing powerhouse, but despite achieving these impressive feats, Belgium aren’t considered one of Europe’s elite footballing nations.

Bearing in mind Belgium’s phenomenal crop of talent; a crop who have not only youth on their side but have all now added valuable experience at the highest level, there is every reason to believe they can earn Belgium the reputation they deserve.

Many are referring to the current national team as the Golden Generation, and it’s hard to disagree. They are without doubt, the best batch of players the country has ever produced at one time.

They have two fantastic goalkeepers in Thibaut Cortois and Simon Mignolet. Whoever should win number one spot out of these two will have an outstanding rearguard to protect them, consisting of the solid Thomas Vermalen, Daniel Van Buyten and Vincent Kompany who are both supported and complemented by the brilliant attacking defender Jan Vertonghen.

In midfield, they have the silky flair of Eden Hazard backed up by the bullish muscle of Marouane Fellaini and Axel Witsel, who have the ability to grind a game down to a halt in order to seize control of it. Once these two powerhouses have worn down the opposition and regained possession, they have the nimble Moussa Dembélé to pass the ball to, who can turn defence from attack before you know it.

Dembélé has a wealth of attacking talent to aim for upfront, most notably Romelu Lukaku and Christian Benteke - who scored a huge 36 Premier League goals between them last season – which is more than Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tévez and Fernando Torres combined. The team has the perfect mix of physicality, skill, defence and firepower.

No team is complete without a great captain and Belgium have several to choose from. Vincent Kompany is a born leader and led Manchester City to their first league title in 44 years.

Although Thomas Vermalen endured a difficult season with Arsenal, his qualities on the pitch remain unquestionable. Jan Vertonghen has established himself as a leader during his hugely impressive breakthrough season in English football. So, Belgium look as if they finally possess all the pieces of the jigsaw required to become a force in European and world football.

Despite this, Belgium are a young, raw force at the minute and are probably still unlikely to win the World Cup next year; they need time to gel together as a team and experience the big stage collectively.

Brazil 2014, however, could act as a dress rehearsal for Euro 2016 – don’t be surprised if Belgium are being touted as serious contenders in three years’ time.

If Belgium’s Golden Generation do succeed at the Euros in France, they will owe a lot of their success to the longevity of the Belgian FA. Many of the current Golden Generation have been playing football together since they were 15 and are now beginning to reap the rewards of their shared experience as they all seem to be maturing together after plying their trades in Europe’s top leagues.

For a nation populated by just 11 million to produce such a high amount of top players in such a short period of time, the national coaching must be doing something right.

Definitely one to watch at Brazil 2014, and if you fancy a cheeky flutter on an outsider for the European Championships in 2016, look no further than Belgium.

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