Why the Red Devils could reign in Russia

Summary

With an all-star lineup coming of age this summer, Belgium might never have a better chance of becoming world champions

World Cup preview

If there was ever a moment for the Red Devils to seize the day, it’s this summer in Russia. This is likely to be Belgium’s best chance ever of winning football’s greatest prize, the World Cup.

With Belgium currently lying third in the Fifa world rankings, the chances are remarkably high. Players like Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Thibault Courtois are feted as part of the global footballing elite, bought by the biggest clubs for eye-popping sums. If Belgium do go all the way to the final at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on 15 July, it wouldn’t surprise anyone who has been following football closely over the past few years. 

But at a certain level, it would still be unlikely. Belgium is a small country of just 11 million. None of its club sides have ever won the top European trophy, the Champions League – indeed, it’s a rare year in which they win even one game in the competition. The furthest they’ve gone in the World Cup was a semi-final in Mexico in 1986. Between 2002 and 2014, they didn’t qualify once for either the World Cup or the European Championships.

They reached the 2014 World Cup and were unlucky to lose their quarter-final against a Lionel Messi-inspired Argentina. By Euro 2016, they were already among the favourites and were knocked out by Wales in the quarter-finals – but this was attributed less to the innate failings of the side than to naive tactics by then-manager Marc Wilmots.

The right mentality

Today the Red Devils have a renewed focus under their Spanish coach, Roberto Martinez, assisted by former Arsenal and France legend Thierry Henry. The players have also matured as they have been blooded in big games. All but one of them, Anderlecht’s Leander Dendoncker, play outside Belgium, for some of Europe’s major clubs: Barcelona (Thomas Vermaelen), Monaco (Youri Tielemans) and Napoli (Dries Mertens).

We’ve got exceptional talent, but talent on its own is not enough to win a major tournament

- Coach Roberto Martinez

But England is where most head. From Vincent Kompany and De Bruyne at Manchester City to Hazard and Lukaku at Manchester United, from Simon Mignolet at Liverpool to Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld at Tottenham Hotspur, Belgian players are mainstays of top teams in the Premier League where the fast, physical style suits them well. Indeed, 11 of the 23 play there. 

That makes it particularly spicy that Belgium are set to play England in Kaliningrad on 28 June in the final group stage game. England have not lost to Belgium in their past 11 meetings – and their only defeat against them in 21 games was in 1936. The others in Group G are World Cup newcomers Panama (they play Belgium in Sochi on 18 June) and Tunisia (at Moscow’s Spartak stadium on 23 June).

But for all the brilliance of the squad, success is far from assured. Martinez, a former coach of Premier League Everton, has warned that Belgium must overcome a mental barrier if they are to win the World Cup. “We’ve got exceptional talent, but talent on its own is not enough to win a major tournament. We’ve never had the direction before,” he said. “We need to work on the psychology and the mental aspect of being a team. We need the right mentality to get through the difficult moments of a game.”

If the Red Devils can indeed come together and work as a team, then who knows? There could be a new name on the World Cup this summer. 

Photo: The Red Devils ahead of a friendly against Egypt in Brussels on 6 June; Belgium won 3-0 with goals from Lukaku, Hazard and Fellaini
© Dirk Waem/Belga