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 nation’s most ardent supporters.
Just making the World Cup finals proved beyond the ‘Red Devils’ in 2006 and 2010, with 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 the ‘dark horses’ tag firmly stamped on their passports. Only the hosts, Argentina, Germany and Spain are above them in the pundits’ lists. Coach Marc Wilmots’s (in pic) talented squad sailed through their qualifying group unbeaten. They booked their ticket to Brazil with a game to spare in Zagreb, as Romelu Lukaku’s double did the damage. In Group H, they have Algeria, Russia and Korea for company.
Star players like Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne, Lukaku, Vincent Kompany and Kevin Mirallas, ply their trade in Europe’s big leagues. And that presence beyond Belgium’s borders according to veteran central defender Daniel van Buyten is one of the reasons for the country’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. 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.
According to Van Buyten, Group H is “winnable.” Now should they 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.
Shorn of players from the former Soviet Republics — with whom Russia had reached three quarter-finals and the 1966 semi-finals — they have failed since 1990 to qualify for three finals and in the two they reached, in 1994 and 2002, they made a first-round exits.
Now an ageing squad will be tasked with breaking new ground in Brazil this month.
Fortune has favoured them with a kind draw in this group where apart from the highly rated Belgians, there are Algeria and South Korea, both of whom Russians should beat.
Fabio Capello (in pic) can take confidence from the qualifying campaign where they edged Euro 2012 semi-finalists Portugal into second place.
But he will be relying largely on the same team that predecessor Dick Advocaat took to Euro 2012 and flattered to deceive after they went out in the group stage despite opening with a 4-1 victory over the Czech Republic.
The talent of Alexander Kerzhakov — the only one of the squad with World Cup experience having made one appearance as a substitute in 2002 — Roman Shirokov, Igor Denisov and Yuri Zhirkov is not in doubt.
But they have also shown a tendency to crack under pressure and fight among themselves. Not even their advancing years — all would be 30 or older by the time the finals begin — has seemingly improved this facet of their characters.
Shirokov has on more than one occasion been disciplined for making controversial statements while Denisov refused to play at Euro 2008 because he said his pride had been hurt at only being called up at the last minute.
Age, too, is a concern in defence where captain Sergei Ignashevich is 34 and his central defensive partner, Vasili Berezutski, is 31.
This is an area that the fast South Koreans could expose. It is the lack of young talent coming through that has taxed Capello’s mind, for while exciting playmaker Alan Dzagoev is young — he will turn 24 on June 17 — he is not a new face on the international scene, having made his debut in 2008.
“They (Russian club managers) need to prepare the under-21s, under-20s to find new players,” Capello said.
“I need to speak to the managers. We need to put some young players in the first team. This is the problem.
“We’ve got seven foreign players every game and four Russian players. If one of the best players is injured, we lose a lot.”
With Capello having signed a contract that will see him through to the 2018 finals, he can turn his mind to that goal after Brazil.
Algeria have promised to improve on an embarrassing World Cup record when they compete at the 2014 finals in Brazil. Coached by former Bosnia international Vahid Halilhodzic (in pic) the ‘Desert Foxes’ last won a match at the tournament 32 years ago
and have scored only once in six games during two subsequent appearances. But experienced midfielder Foued Kadir, who was left out of the squad, says his country can do better with a more experienced unit than the one that flopped in South Africa four years ago. “You will see a different Algeria in Brazil, with more maturity and experience than the
2010 squad,” said Kadir.
“Our ambitions are to win matches and qualify for the knockout stage. So, much hinges on the first game against Belgium. Everybody is assuming the Belgians are going to top the group, leaving the other three teams fighting for second place. If we can get at least a draw against Belgium, our chances of making the knockout stages will improve highly,” he added.
Numerous France-born Algerians have made the squad, including Udinese’s Hassan Yebda and Porto striker Nabil Ghilas. Football ties between France and Algeria run deep with Lille-born Tottenham Hotspur central midfielder Nabil Bentaleb opting for Algeria. The 19-year-old played for France at age-limit level before being persuaded to represent the country of his parents. He made his international debut in March in a 2-0 win at a friendly versus Slovenia, who had defeated Algeria at the 2010 World Cup.
It was a rare victory over a European opposition and raised their morale ahead of Brazil — an expedition pundits believe will end in first-round
South Korea will be playing their eighth consecutive World Cup finals in June, but they must improve on a dire qualification campaign to have any chance of escaping a tough group in Brazil.
Unlike fierce rivals Japan, they spluttered through qualifying and it ended with the departure of coach Choi Kang-hee amid concerns that the team was heading for embarrassment in South America.
A 0-1 home defeat by Iran in the final match meant South Korea grabbed the last automatic berth on goal difference. Choi subsequently stepped aside and former captain Hong Myung-bo (in pic) took over. Tasked with shoring up a suspect defence and sharpening a one-dimensional attack, Hong tinkered with personnel and formations and won just once in his first seven games.
However, a stoic display in a 0-2 defeat by Brazil in October was followed by an impressive 3-1 win over Mali and a superb 2-1 victory over Switzerland. As good as the result was against the Swiss, who went through their qualifying campaign unbeaten, the manner in which the Koreans controlled possession and opened up their opponents at will suggested Hong had found the right formula.
Unlucky to lose 1-2 to Group H rivals Russia in a friendly four days later, the Koreans slumped to defeats against Mexico and the United States as Hong gave fringe players a chance. His team then looked well again in a 2-0 win over Greece in Athens with what appeared like their strongest XI.
The Koreans are likely to have a win against Algeria and must get a positive result versus Russia if they are to stand a chance of reaching the knockout stage in Brazil, with top-quality group rivals Belgium highly fancied to go a long way. It will be the third time the Koreans will meet Belgium at the World Cup after losing 0-2 in 1990 and drawing 1-1 in 1998. They will be facing Russia and Algeria for the first time at the finals.
While a return to the semi-finals, a feat they achieved in 2002 as co-hosts, looks almost certainly beyond them, South Korea stand a decent chance of reaching the knockout stages. They have a fine record against African sides, beating Togo in 2006 and drawing with Nigeria four years later. The Russia game is expected to be the key fixture for both sides.
Much will depend on how the young Korean team copes with the pressure. The majority of the players in the squad are in their mid-20s and playing a World Cup for the first time. Son Heung-Min, a 21-year-old forward, may hold the key to improving their scoring record. Son made his name netting 12 goals for Hamburg last season, earning a lucrative transfer to Bayer Leverkusen. More goals have come this season for his new German club and he is the Koreans’ top-scorer under Hong, with four in eight games.