Belgium is stocked with enviable talent but is faced with a repeat question entering the World Cup: Can it fulfill its potential and make a run to the title?

By 90Min
March 21, 2018

Belgium has never won a World Cup. Nor has it won a European championship. In fact, the only 'title' the men's national team can claim is a gold medal in the 1920 Antwerp Olympics. So why is it that in 2018, many fans and pundits think the Diables Rouges have a legitimate chance of winning football's biggest prize?

Belgium has only recently undergone a resurrection that sees the nation currently sitting in fifth in FIFA's world ranking. After reaching the round of 16 in the 2002 FIFA World Cup (where it lost to eventual winner Brazil, partially thanks to a controversially disallowed goal), Belgium failed to qualify for the next two tournaments. 

It resurfaced at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil under the stewardship of coach Marc Wilmots, but lost in the quarterfinals to Argentina. Still, the team showed a drastic improvement, and was even ranked as No. 1 in the world in 2015. Not bad for a nation of just 11 million.

At the 2016 European Championship, Belgium entered the tournament as a dark horse for the crown, and it was easy to see why. Belgium's squad contained a plethora of established footballing talent, including Premier League stars Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Jan Vertonghen. 

Yet the team suffered a shock exit at the quarterfinal stage, losing to underdog Wales 3-1. Wilmots was sacked following the competition, and some wondered if Belgium would ever fulfill its potential during its 'golden era' - much like England failed to do in the mid-2000s.

However, that era is not over yet, and Belgium realizes the opportunity that now awaits in Russia. The Red Devils became the first European nation to qualify for the World Cup, winning nine games, drawing one and scoring 43 goals in the process. 

They've been handed a fairly easy group, with England their toughest opponent alongside minnows Panama and Tunisia. But much of Belgium's performance at this World Cup rests on the shoulders of Spanish coach Roberto Martinez.

Hired in 2016 after Wilmot's dismissal, the former Everton manager must find a way to use the talent at his disposal wisely. In De Bruyne and Hazard he has two of Europe's best playmakers. De Bruyne has 11 goals and 19 assists in all competitions in the 2017/18 season, while Hazard has an impressive 15 and 11.

Lukaku is a massive goal threat, and, at 24, is already Belgium's all-time record goal scorer. Belgium's defense is stout, thanks to the presence of Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and captain Vincent Kompany. It conceded only six times during World Cup qualifying. 

That's six of Belgium's key players, but take a look at some of the other major names Martinez can call on: Mousa Dembélé, Michy Batshuayi, Dries Mertens, Thomas Meunier and Thibaut Courtois.

Yet questions still surround Martinez's coaching acumen. He has had managerial spells at Swansea, Wigan - winning the FA Cup in 2013 - and Everton. In his first season as manager of the Toffees, Martinez helped guide the club to a fifth-placed finish, but the club never reached the same heights under his tenure, and Martinez was sacked after three years in charge. 

Belgium appointed Martinez as head coach in August, and he successfully guided them to World Cup qualification without losing a match. But after a 3-3 draw against Mexico in a friendly last November, De Bruyne critiqued Martinez for his poor tactics. Quite a worrying sign from one of your star players ahead of the World Cup.

Fortunately, Martinez has some time to adjust before Belgium kicks off its World Cup campaign against Panama on June 18. Belgium plays a friendly against Saudi Arabia on March 27, so Martinez should be able to experiment with different formations and strategies.

If he is able to find a formula that works, and if is he able to lean on the lessons learned from the last two international tournaments, then there is no reason why Belgium can't make it to the FIFA World Cup final–and perhaps shock everyone by winning the whole thing.

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