Football

Belgium can become a formidable international force

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Belgium have a number of talented players. (©GettyImages)
Belgium have a number of talented players. (©GettyImages).

Quite like Borussia Dortmund have seemingly become everyone's second favourite club side, with the World Cup edging ever closer, everyone now seemingly has a second international side - Belgium - that they can admire, even if they do not support. 

With their passage through to Brazil all but sealed, Belgian fans and players alike can look forward to their first international tournament since the 2002 World Cup. It has been a slow and necessary recovery for the Belgian national side, with the much heralded Belgian sides of the 1980s a thing of the past. The Red Devils have endured a tough start to the 21st century but, despite this, they are all but heading to Brazil as the team to watch. 

Even though this crop of Belgian players will be heading to their first major tournament, their ability means they have the potential to go all the way next summer. But expectation also has to be managed and finding a manager to guide Belgium back to the top has seemingly proved just as hard as finding the right players.

Since 2005, there have been no fewer than 6 managers of the Belgian national side. Georges Leekens had looked set to be the man to guide Belgium into the current qualifying campaign, signing a contract in 2011 after promising performances in qualifying for Euro 2012, however Leekens chose to move on to Club Brugge, leaving Marc Wilmots to take charge of turning raw potential into talent.

Assistant to both Leekens and his predecessor Dick Advocaat, Wilmots made the most of his chance as interim manager, earning a full-time contract until 2014. Like this crop of national players, Wilmots himself is in coaching terms young and is only in his third position as a manager, following stints at Schalke and Sint-Triuden.

Those stints, alongside a much criticised venture into politics, makes Wilmots as interesting a character as the Belgian side are a proposition. But the facts are that Wilmots has become the man to finally take Belgium back to international tournaments, overseeing a campaign in which they have only dropped four points, conceded only two goals and remained unbeaten. 

Despite Wilmots' impact, the main impact at next summer's World Cup will be made by the players on the pitch - mostly players that have never played at a World Cup or a European Championship. Of the players named in the squad for the final two qualifiers this week, only Daniel Van Buyten and Timmy Simons have been tested at a major international tournament - the 2002 World Cup. 

The early signs for this current crop of players being a talented bunch occurred at the 2008 Olympics, when a squad including current key players Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen, Marouane Fellaini, Kevin Mirallas, Thomas Vermaelen and Mousa Dembele finished fourth in the Olympic Football tournament.

In addition to these players, more have followed. Eden Hazard is arguably the best talent in the Belgian side, but a midfield with the likes of Kevin de Bruyne, Steven Defour and Axel Witsel provides the Red Devils with one of the best midfields in Europe.

It is not only the midfield they excel. Frontmen such as Christian Benteke and Romelu Lukaku will strike fear into any defence - although expect only one of the two to play - whereas their defence will strike fear into any attack. A widely versatile defence could be crucial to Belgium with the rigours of a World Cup campaign, and arguably only Van Buyten can play in one position, the rest, such as Vertonghen at centre-back and left-back, Toby Alderweireld at centre-back and right-back, can slot into a number of roles. 

Great sides need a great goalkeeper and Belgium can vouch for that, with both Jean-Marie Pfaff (1986) and Michael Preud'homme (1994) winning the Yashin award for best goalkeeper at their respective World Cups. This current Belgian side have two: Atletico Madrid's loanee Thibaut Courtois and Liverpool's Simon Mignolet.

With two of Europe's finest 'keepers vying for the number one spot, Wilmots is presented with a welcome headache, and, although Courtois is seemingly top of the pecking order, Mignolet's solid start to life at Anfield will see him push Courtois all the way to Brazil. 

They may not have the experience of international tournaments quite like Spain or Germany, and that could ultimately be their downfall in Brazil. However, these Belgian players are not shy of top-tier competition experience and have been slowly gelling internationally for several years. For this side the expectation will be there and, after a 12-year wait, arriving in Brazil will be a welcome sight for all Belgians. 

Quite like last season's Champions League when Dortmund were dark horses to go all the way, the same can be said of Belgium. Whereas Dortmund's success has seen their biggest players head's turned by multi-million pound moves, expect this Belgian team to become a force in international football for years to come - even if 2014 is not their year. 

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