What if I told you that a team that didn’t even qualify for the 2006 and 2010 World Cups will win their group with ease? What if I told you that I am not the first person to mention this? Before this starts sounding like the script to an ESPN 30 for 30 film, let me explain: if the Belgian National Team was a human, it would watch Pretty Little Liars, drink Starbucks coffee, and wear Ugg Boots, yoga pants, and lens-less glasses. Being a fan of the Belgian National Team seems to be the hip thing to do nowadays. Whether it is in EA Sports’ FIFA series, or real-life soccer, it is clear that the Belgian youth are built for the long term. That being said, these youngsters are ready for the challenge at the 2014 World Cup. They are my, and millions of others’ (including Soccer Yanks’ own Dave), dark horse to win the 2014 World Cup.
An obvious one is their, uhh, strength. Romelu Lukaku is strong enough to hold his own as the lone striker and their strength throughout the midfield and centerbacks is phenomenal. This team is stacked offensively, with Eden Hazard and Kevin Mirallas on the wings, and 6’3” Romelu Lukaku at striker. Christian Benteke’s absence due to injury will hurt their depth in the attack, as Dries Mertens and Divock Origi are expected to start on the bench, but this team will have a few games to figure out their rotation and form. The depth in their midfield could be the difference-maker, with the likes of Kevin de Bruyne, Axel Witsel, and Marouane Fellaini expected to start, and Moussa Dembele, Steven Defour, Nacer Chadli, and Manchester United stud Adnan Januzaj on the bench. Lastly, their goalkeeper. Thibaut Courtios has been a standout all season for Atletico Madrid, as well as the Belgian National Team. The 6’6” giant was crucial to Belguim’s stingy defense in UEFA, saving seven of the eight on-target shots he faced from inside 15 yards (the best rate in Europe). (Note: For those curious, “Stella” translates to “star,” hence the name of this article.)
As mentioned before, overall this team is very young. With youth comes inexperience. If Belgium wants to advance further than the Round of 16, they need to let their experience get to them, and fast. Another thing that can hurt this team is their high expectations. Regardless of not qualifying for the previous two World Cup tournaments, the bar is set very high for this team considering how weak their group is. With the youth in this team, and perhaps lack of leadership, they need to look past the expectations and remain focused. Also, could lack of playing time with their club team affect expected starters such as De Bruyne, Vermaelen, and Fellaini?
Their defense. With Alderweireld, Kompany, Van Buyten, and Vertonghen expected to be the starting back four, there is the potential to be vulnerable. I have voiced my dislike for Kompany and his risky tackles in the past, and I feel that it will be no different during the World Cup. Can Kompany steer clear of the referee’s pocket? Can Van Buyten out-run a snail? Their depth off the bench is not exactly strong outside of Vermaelen, with Ciman, Lombaerts, and Vanden Borre expected to join him on the bench. Their fullback pairing of Alderweireld and Vertonghen may be expected to pick up the dirty work.
Believe it or not, the amount of travelling is going to affect certain teams in Brazil. Along with arguably the easiest group of all, the lucky Red Devils have arguably the easiest travel schedule. Just like the US National Team, Belgium’s base camp is in Sao Paulo. At the complete opposite end of the spectrum, Belgium has nearly one-tenth the amount of travel that the United States is facing. In their first game against Algeria, they travel to Belo Horizonte (610 miles or 1-1/2 hours round trip), followed by a trip to Rio De Jeneiro (440 miles or 2 hours round trip) to square off against Russia, before finishing their group schedule with a game against South Korea in Sao Paulo. During the group stages, Belgium will travel a total of 1,050 miles. To put that in to perspective, the United States’ shortest trip is over double the amount of Belgium’s total travel (Recife – 2660 miles or 6-1/2 hours).
Path to the Finals
Once it gets past the Round of 16, it is hard to predict who Belgium will face. That being said, they’ll face Russia, Algeria, and South Korea in the group stage. For the sake of this experiment, let’s assume that Belgium wins Group H and Germany wins Group G. If that is the case, Belgium would play Portugal, Ghana, or United States in the Round of 16. Any of the three would be a step-up from their Group H counterparts, but I don’t expect Belgium to struggle against any of those three. From the quarterfinals-on, it’s a crapshoot. They would face the winner of the Group F winner (let’s say Argentina) and Group E runner-up (let’s say Ecuador). Argentina wins that game – convincingly. So that leaves us with a quarterfinal matchup of Belgium vs. Argentina. This could be Belgium’s first true test – with 4 games behind them. Similar to Belgium, Argentina is an attack-heavy team. The difference could be Argentina’s vulnerable defense. In the semifinal, it really gets tricky. They could face anyone from Spain to Netherlands to Italy to England. This is when the going gets tough. Belgium will finally face a complete team. With so many variables, it’s almost impossible to see how Belgium will fare against their options.
This team is talented. There is no hiding that. At this point, they’re the hipster of the 2014 World Cup. They are everyone’s dark horse. One may question if they can really be considered a dark horse. When you considering everything this team has been through since their last World Cup appearance (2002) – the managerial changes, wasted international careers of many players, and their all-time low on the FIFA rankings list (71st) – calling this team a dark horse still feels right.