The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION
A surprise team no more:. Belgium already a real contender ahead of Brazil World Cup
BRUSSELS - A few months back, Belgium looked like it could be a surprise team at the World Cup. By now, though, there are precious few people left to surprise.
Belgium's new golden generation of players booked their spot in Brazil with the same flair and style it has displayed throughout its qualifying campaign, highlighted by 20-year-old Romelu Lukaku ripping the Croatia defence apart with speed and guile for two goals in a 2-1 victory Friday that secured its first World Cup appearance in a dozen years.
"It's a party in Belgium. What more can you ask," coach Marc Wilmots said.
Belgium languished in 54th place of the FIFA rankings in June 2012 when Wilmots became head coach. Now it is sixth in the ranking, the highest ever placing for the nation on 11 million, shoehorned in between such football giants as Germany, France and the Netherlands.
"Now up to Brazil and hopefully we can make it even better there," goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois said.
Nowadays, Belgium can hardly be labeled an underdog against anyone after its stunning rise and performance in European Group A, where a victory on Tuesday at home against Wales would give it 28 points out of a possible 30.
Without a club of note in the top echelons of the European competitions, its best talents have instead spread far and wide from a very young age to become household names in the English Premier League, Spain's La Liga and less prominent leagues like Russia and Portugal.
Vincent Kompany is the defensive star of Manchester City, Eden Hazard is playmaker at Chelsea, Christian Benteke the power forward at Aston Villa and Courtois is the supreme goalkeeper of the Spanish league with Atletico Madrid.
And considering Lukaku, currently on loan to Everton from Chelsea, was only a replacement for Benteke, and Simon Mignolet is Liverpool's starting goalkeeper and only a benchwarmer behind Courtois, it shows Belgium has some strength in depth too.
Somehow it took until Wilmots got the top coaching job that anyone could make something of this potent mix. The same no-nonsense attitude that he showed as a player for Schalke in the Bundesliga — where he was nicknamed "fighting boar" — the 44-year-old now applies as a coach.
And so far, it's working perfectly.
"And we're not done yet," Wilmots promised.
Belgium has gone a dozen years without an international tournament. And the last time around, Wilmots was the star as a player in his fourth and final World Cup campaign during the 2002 championship in Japan and South Korea.
Now he is heading to his fifth. And perhaps the only thing counting against Belgium is the fact that they've been away from top competitions for so long. In Brazil, after all, they'll probably have to get past perennial qualifiers like Germany, Brazil, Italy and Argentina, who all have plenty of experience managing a monthlong campaign.
But that would just be another surprise to spring.
Perhaps the biggest surprise so far is the face that the Red Devils have instilled a real sense of unity in a nation all too often torn apart by the linguistic squabbles between the 6.5 million Dutch-speakers and 4.5 Francophones.
On Friday, Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo even travelled to Zagreb for the game. Afterward, Di Rup tweeted: "Brazil, here we come!"
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