Belgium resurgence sparks World Cup optimism
Brussels: A few years ago the notion of Belgium as fifth favourites to win a World Cup ahead of France, Italy and England would have seemed ludicrous even to the country`s most ardent supporters.
Just making the World Cup finals proved beyond the Red Devils in 2006 and 2010, their last appearance coming back in 2002 when they lost to eventual winners Brazil in the last 16.
Yet here they are, bags packed for Brazil with `dark horses` firmly stamped on their passports and yet only the hosts, Argentina, Germany and Spain above them in the betting.
Coach Marc Wilmots` talented squad sailed through their qualifying group unbeaten, barely putting a foot wrong against Croatia, Serbia and Scotland.
They sealed their berth to Brazil with a game to spare in Zagreb, Romelu Lukaku`s double doing the damage. They start in Group H against Algeria, Russia and South Korea.
Star players like Chelsea`s Eden Hazard, Wolfsburg`s Kevin de Bruyne, Lukaku (loaned by Chelsea to Everton), Manchester City`s Vincent Kompany and Lukaku`s Everton team-mate Kevin Mirallas ply their trade in Europe`s main leagues.
And that presence beyond Belgium`s borders according to veteran central defender Daniel van Buyten is one of the reasons for Belgium`s footballing renaissance.
"We`ve got a good generation of players, many of whom ply their trade abroad and are playing regularly in international competitions," said Van Buyten, who plays for German champions Bayern Munich.
"That`s made us a lot stronger," the decorated defender, only the second Belgian to win the Champions League, told fifa.com.
"All the young players are suddenly playing abroad. They all used to play in Belgium. They were still good players, but only as good as the Belgian league."
Belgium`s best run in a World Cup so far saw them reach the 1986 semi-finals in Mexico where they met their match in a Diego Maradona-inspired Argentina.
Van Buyten said that Group H is "winnable."
If they do top their group, Belgium could avoid Germany in the last 16, a major incentive if ever there was one.
Van Buyten revealed how the shift in attitude to Belgium by his German teammates at Bayern underscored his country`s dramatic recent progress.
"It`s great that such a big football nation knows a match against Belgium isn`t going to be easy."
Belgium`s former boss Georges Leekens believes Hazard will shine on the World Cup stage, his move from Lille to Chelsea, coached by Jose Mourinho, taking his game to another level.
"The Chelsea manager has not only demanded Hazard scores more goals and produces more assists, but also that he works hard defensively and takes responsibility," Leekens told London`s Evening Standard.
"The World Cup is the right moment to show himself, he will be excellent. His performances against the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool have shown he is ready for the biggest teams in the World Cup.
"He has the talent to be considered on the same level as Ronaldo and Messi - after the World Cup, maybe people will stop comparing him to those players and appreciate him for the player he has become."