When Belgium fell to Brazil in the Round of 16 at the 2002 World Cup, it marked the beginning of a long hiatus from the world stage. On that night in Kobe, Japan, Brazil advanced to the quarterfinals en route to a fifth championship, while Belgium has not returned to a major tournament since. That drought will come to a close Tuesday when Les Diables Rouges take on Algeria in their first match of Group H, and their path from non-factor to dark horse title contenders illustrates how a nation's evolution beyond the pitch can transform a team.
During Belgium's 12-year barren spell, much has changed off the pitch in Europe. The European Union's relaxed immigration policies helped weave new threads into the multicultural fabric of the continent, and few countries reflect this newfound diversity better than Belgium.
Situated between the Netherlands (to the north) and France (to the south), Belgium's geography defines its society. A linguistic and cultural divide separates its two regions. In the northern region of Flanders, Flemish (or Belgian Dutch) is spoken, while French is the dominant language in the southern region of Wallonia. In the middle, Brussels doubles as the capital of the country and of the EU—the symbol of European unity lying at the very fracture point of Belgian culture. It's almost as stark of a juxtaposition as the EU's commitment to human rights compared with Belgium's colonial past.
In the final decades of the 19th century, multiple European powers raced to colonize the continent of Africa. Belgium's King Leopold II carved out the Congo, ushering in a brutal and exploitative regime that claimed the lives of over 10 million Congolese before formally ending in 1960. Following independence, many Congolese immigrated to Belgium, and as the country diversified so did its brand of soccer.
Three of Belgium's brightest talents have roots in the Congo. Manchester City defender and national team captain Vincent Kompany is the son of a Congolese immigrant father and Belgian mother. Aston Villa striker Christian Benteke, who will unfortunately miss the World Cup due to a ruptured Achilles, was born in Kinshasa before he and his parents fled to Belgium to escape the oppressive regime of Mobutu Sese Seko. Benteke's understudy, 20-year-old Romelu Lukaku, shares a similar heritage—the Chelsea striker's father played for Zaire in the 1990s.
The Red Devils' "golden generation" is a collection of talent with roots outside of the former Belgian Congo. Midfielders Axel Witsel and Mousa Dembélé have fathers from Martinique and Mali, respectively. Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli both have ties to Morocco, and Manchester United youngster Adnan Januzaj has Balkan roots. This summer's team will have at least nine non-ethnic Belgians selected, whereas Belgium's last appearance in 2002 showcased only two players of non-Belgian descent, Mbo Mpenza (born in the Congo) and Branko Strupar (Croatia).
But Belgium's improved national team owes its success to more than just a batch of raw imports. The Belgian Pro League has developed a fruitful youth system, which has consistently produced gifted players over the past decade. Teams in the neighboring Netherlands often swoop in for young players from Flanders, as was the case with defenders Thomas Vermaelen and Jan Vertonghen, who made names for themselves with Ajax before moving to the English Premier League. Similarly, French teams often sign players from Wallonia. Chelsea superstar Eden Hazard and Everton winger Kevin Mirallas were plucked from Belgium by Lille, located just across the French border, before they made bigger moves to England. Domestically, the relatively small K.R.C. Genk has produced two Chelsea signees in goalkeeping phenomenon Thibaut Courtois and midfielder Kevin De Bruyne. And Standard Liège—a more traditional name in Belgian football—has had a procession of big names come through its youth academy, including Fellaini, Witsel, and Mirallas.
Given the wealth of talent at their disposal, the Red Devils will begin play as one of the most talented teams on paper. Expectations are high for coach Marc Wilmots's men despite their lack of major tournament experience, with only 36-year-old Daniel Van Buyten returning from 2002. They were handed a manageable group (Algeria, Russia, and South Korea), and their favorable travel schedule will keep them out of the scorching heat of northern Brazil. To top it off, being placed in Group H means Belgium got five days of rest after the start of the tournament, giving the players extra time to calm their nerves and acclimate themselves to the surroundings. A potential Round-of-16 match against Germany, Portugal, Ghana, or the United States is no easy task, but a victory there would all but guarantee a successful debut for most of the squad.
Even putting the World Cup aside, Belgium's future is bright. With key players like Courtois, Hazard, Lukaku, Witsel, and Benteke all 25 or younger, they also figure to be a threat at the 2016 European Championships in neighboring France, a prime opportunity for Belgium to win its first major tournament. Wilmots has extended his contract until 2018, recognizing the long-term potential of his team.
Whatever the results, the Belgian national side is a sign of what the modern game has become. In recent decades, we've grown accustomed to seeing racial and ethnic diversity in national teams like France, England, and the Netherlands. But now, with rapid changes in societies across Europe, teams like Belgium, Germany, and Italy—places where nationalism and regionalism once ruled supreme—are becoming dramatically more diverse. In today's game, national teams just aren't all that nationalistic anymore. As global societies have changed, so has the sport. And as the promising future of Belgium's national team illustrates, this evolution can carry major benefits onto the pitch.
Devon Gray is a contributor to Howler. Follow him on Twitter, @Devon_Gray.