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Who Will Stop Belgium In The 2014 World Cup?

Saturday 30th November 2013
With Belgium qualified for the 2014 World Cup Sean Gibson takes a look at the teams chances in Brazil.

Incidentally, the 2002 campaign saw Marc Wilmots captain Belgium to the last 16. The former Schalke midfielder has now earned his opportunity to better his success,  as coach of the national side.

The Red Devils have run a riot in a rampant qualifying campaign, earning 26 points in the process. Not only have the Belgians booked their tickets to Brazil, but have done so in an unbeaten qualification battle against strong opposition. Croatia, Serbia, Scotland, Wales and Macedonia stood between them and the end of a ten year wait to enter football's greatest stage. The challenge seemed a tricky one. They made it look very easy.

Many pundits and analysts were alerted by the sudden rise of the Belgian team. One look at a Premier League fixture list and team sheets are littered with talent from France's next-door neighbour - Vincent Kompany is captain of Manchester City, Eden Hazard is Chelsea's poster boy, then there is Simon Mignolet at Liverpool, Mousa Dembele and Jan Vertonghen at Tottenham, Lukaku and Kevin Mirallas at Everton, Christian Benteke at Aston Villa and Fellaini at Manchester United.

But what explains this upsurge in talented young players? Of all the players named above, Kompany is the eldest at 27. The majority of the side is at the so-called 'peak stage' of their careers - 23-28 and playing competitively in Europe's elite leagues. Why have Belgium produced a youthful talent that England can't compete with? Belgium FA director Michel Sablon states that it was after the 2002 World Cup that things began to change. ‘Our professional clubs were failing,' he said in an interview with the Daily Mail.

‘We could not compete with the major countries like Spain and France. So, in 2002 we started to look closely at France and had meetings with them twice a year. We did the same with Holland. Sometimes we met with Germany as well and tried to improve what we were doing.'

It took time to implement the new strategies.

‘First of all [we wanted to change] the clubs, secondly the national team and third the coaches of the schools. So we adopted the same vision for all three groups. We went to the clubs and asked them to play a certain way below Under-18 levels. We asked them to play 4-3-3 with wingers and three midfielders and a flat back four. In the old days, it was always a flat back three, so this was brand new to them.

‘It took more than five or six years before everyone could bring themselves to accept it. Because for most of the coaches and the clubs, all they cared about was winning the game. Nothing else. But that was absolutely wrong for the development of all the players. Totally wrong.'

As a method it sounds effective, simple and cheap. How great can the expenses be to adapt a playing style and properly educate clubs and coaches? It sounds like a step England have been willing to take - the opening of St. George's Park suggests this, but it is the wider scale of the Belgian approach that has led to their success. The strategy was implemented at club level among all coaches - existing as well as rookie.

The fruits of their labour are clear for all to see. Eight wins and two draws in qualifying has led to Belgium sitting alongside the likes of Spain, Germany and hosts Brazil as World Cup seeds.

There may be a buzz surrounding Belgian football, but Wilmots is not ready to jump for joy. In recent months, concerns have been raised, as key Belgian squad members are not always regular starters for their clubs, in turn, causing the national side to suffer. 'We first have to settle the problem that players play for their club,' explained coach Marc Wilmots, who has sent a clear message to the likes of Thomas Vermaelen, Kevin De Bruyne and Moussa Dembele. With important players getting few minutes, Wilmots believes the winter transfer window is a chance for his players to look for better playing opportunities. 'December and January will be important even though I have little impact on it.'

There may be concerns over some areas of the team, but strength in depth is certainly not a worry that Wilmots should have. The very fact that Vermaelen or Dembele could be left at home speaks volumes of the Belgian's ability to now compete with the European powerhouses.

Despite recently losing 2-0 to Columbia and 3-2 to Japan, the Flemish still have good reason to feel buoyant. With the perfect combination of strong battlers, creators, passers and goalscorers, it appears that Belgium are well equipped to put up a firm fight in Brazil.

From world ranking obscurity to World Cup seeds in ten years, many will now be tipping the Red Devils as this year's dark horses.
Sean Gibson
Arsenal fan. All time favourite players include Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry, Eduardo Da Silva, Ronaldinho and Zinedine Zidane. Will never forget the 25th April 2004. Follow Sean on Twitter: @seangooner

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