Belgium is for real, and it’s headed to its first World Cup in a dozen years.
The Diables Rouges, or Rode Duivels, or Rote Teufel – depending on what part of the trilingual country you ask – defeated host Croatia, 2-1, on Friday to seal first place in UEFA’s Group A and become the third European nation (and 11th overall) to book its place in Brazil.
The talented Belgians also are in line to be one of the tournament’s eight seeded squads. They’re currently ranked sixth in the world by FIFA and would have to slip three places to miss out, an extremely unlikely outcome.
Needing only a draw in Zagreb to clinch, the Belgians stormed to a two-goal lead thanks to a first-half brace from Romelu Lukaku, the 20-year-old Chelsea striker who’s on loan at Everton. He scored in the 15th minute off a beautiful long through ball from Steven Defour and then doubled the visitors’ lead in the 38th.
Croatia (5-2-2) pulled one back in the game's closing moments but never posed a legitimate threat. The 1998 World Cup bronze medalist now has to hope for a win in Scotland next Tuesday and advance through the UEFA playoffs.
Meanwhile, Belgium (8-0-1) can start thinking about making some noise in Brazil. It lacks the pedigree of European heavyweights like Germany, Italy and Spain, but this is a team that could compete with any of them. The roster is stacked with players from top European clubs, led by the likes of Vincent Kompany (Manchester City), Daniel Van Buyten (Bayern Munich), Eden Hazard (Chelsea) and Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United).
There will be doubters, however. The World Cup often isn’t kind to those “golden generations” from smaller soccer nations that lack experience on the biggest stage. The U.S. faced two of them, Colombia in 1994 and Portugal in 2002, and emerged victorious. This Belgium team is far from a sure thing, but they’re primed to upset the established order and make a run.
Lukaku and Co. will finish off Group A play at home against Wales on Tuesday. GALLERY: Countries who have punched their tickets to Brazil 2014