By 90Min
April 26, 2018

This summer Belgium will play at its 13th World Cup finals when Les Diables Rouges travel to Russia. The tiny nation of just 11 million has undergone a remarkable transformation in recent times - after failing to qualify for the 2006 and 2010 tournaments, Belgium went out at the quarter final stage in 2014 against eventual finalists Argentina, and are currently ranked third in the world.

Yet despite their recent success, this current crop of Belgian talent is yet to match the achievements of the legendary Red Devils of 1986.

But will that change this summer?


The Devils of '86


Belgium limped in to the '86 tournament in Mexico, finishing second in their qualifying group and having to win a tie against the Netherlands (thanks to the away goal rule) to make the tournament. 

Needless to say, Belgium weren't exactly tipped as favourites to do anything special in Mexico. But after they were placed in a group with Iraq, Paraguay and hosts Mexico, there was hope they could - at least - escape the group.

FIFA WORLD CUP 19861/8 final match betw

Escape they did - barely. A win against Iraq and a draw with Paraguay (after losing to Mexico) was enough to see Belgium through to the knockout rounds, where they would come up against the Soviet Union - who had 1986 Ballon d'Or winner Igor Belanov in their ranks.

Despite the odds, the Red Devils saw the Soviets off 4-3 in extra time, overcoming a hat-trick from Belanov in the process.

The Red Devils moved on to the World Cup quarter finals (a first in the nation's history) where they would meet Spain, besting them 5-4 in a penalty shootout after the match finished 1-1.

Bongarts/GettyImages

And just like that, Belgium were in unchartered territory - their first ever semi final, against the mighty Diego Maradona and Argentina. 

Now, Argentina had progressed this far on the back of the most infamous moment in World Cup history - Maradona's 'Hand of God' against England. Sadly, the controversy continued against Belgium in the semi-final.

The game might be remembered for two sublime Maradona goals in the second half - but it could have been so much different had it not been for one of the all-time poor linesman displays in World Cup history.

In the first half, with the score at 0-0, Belgium produce two quick counterattacks that leave strikers one on one with the keeper, only to be hilariously, ridiculously, called offside. You have to see it to believe it (2:05 and 2:58).

FIFA WORLD CUP 19861/8 final match betw

It's unknown if Belgium would have finished those chances or even won the match had the linesman not been a joke, but it was a cruel exit for the Cinderella team of the tournament. 

The Red Devils would lose the third-place play off to France, but did have some small consolation through Enzo Scifo being named the young player of the tournament. 


Belgium's Golden Generation

It's been more than 30 years since Belgium made history at the 1986 World Cup, but the feeling is that this current crop of devils - the nation's golden generation - can do even better.
FBL-WC-2018-QUALIFIER-BEL-GIBRALTAR

To start, the talent pool for this Belgian side is much deeper than their '86 counterparts. Of the '86 squad, only two players plied their trade outside of Belgium (Jean-Marie Pfaff for Bayern Munich and Eric Gerets at PSV Eindhoven). Not to destroy the Belgian First Division, but it's not exactly the most competitive league in the world.


Compare that with the team of 2018 - almost the entirety of the squad play in foreign leagues. The starting XI that takes to the field in the World Cup will more than likely all play abroad, with a number of top stars playing in the Premier League - Hazard, De Bruyne, Lukaku, Kompany, Vertonghen, Alderweireld, etc.

Manchester City v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League

TransferMarkt.com lists the total market value of Belgium's national team at €702.75m - England's total value is €686m, for comparison.


Additionally, the '18 Belgium team qualified for the World Cup with ease - winning their group -and are considered by many to be a dark horse contender to win the whole thing. 

Speaking of groups, Belgium finds itself in Group G - alongside England, Panama and Tunisia. With the top two advancing from each group, Belgium are strong favourites to progress. So while the '86 team were simply thankful to be at the tournament, and achieved a minor miracle by getting to the semi final, the '18 team is making the semi final their objective - with winning the tournament their ultimate goal.

FBL-BEL-WC-2018-TRAINING

The knock against the Red Devils in recent history is failing to live up to their expectations - with a quarter final defeat to Wales at Euro 2016 still fresh in the memory. The appointment of Roberto Martinez as manager has been met with indifference, given he had never coached at the international level before taking the job. 

In short, Belgium has the talent and depth to surpass the team of 1986 - but will they meet their own expectations in Russia? 

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