The word “underachievers” will haunt this Belgium group for the rest of their lives unless they seriously impress at this World Cup. Even just a glance at their roster should strike fear into most opponents’ hearts, but in practice, this dream team has yet to really gel, playing much more like a loose collection of all-stars than any kind of well-integrated team.
Belgium, formed after a France-supported 1830 rebellion in the Southern Netherlands, is sort of a weird country. Practically, the country could very easily be split in half. Many Belgians even want the partition to happen, as there’s little but arbitrary political borders connecting the Dutch-speakers in the north of Flanders and the French-speakers around Brussels and further south. You can choose to use this divide to literally explain the national team’s apparent lack of motivation and unity, or just as some symbolism, but either way, the result is an uninspiring whole that is less than its exceptional parts.
As a soccer nation, Belgium don’t exactly have some long, grand tradition of success. They’ve qualified for only about half of the total World Cups, including an unbroken stretch from 1982 to 2002, and even finished fourth in ’86. But outside of that impressive squad, led by legendary manager Guy Thys, their quarterfinals appearance in 2014 was the best they’ve managed otherwise, and it came in their first World Cup showing in 12 years. At the European Championships, they’ve done even worse, missing out on most tournaments since the ’80s and falling to Wales in disastrous fashion in the 2016 quarterfinals.
In a tournament eventually won by an overachieving Portugal, those Euros were a chance for Belgium’s current generation to prove they had not just the talent, but also the drive and cohesiveness needed to win on the biggest stages. Instead, the Belgians’ loss was cast as yet another characteristically subpar result for the so-called “Vuitton Generation.” The most revealing moment for this Belgian group in the minds of their harshest critics is still the time Eden Hazard got subbed out of a game and almost immediately went and grabbed a hamburger.
Hazard has become one of the best players in the world since then, but he’s still a mercurial presence at Chelsea, where he and his compatriot, goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, have suffered pretty wild fluctuations in their club team’s motivation and success over the past several years. As captain of the national team, this World Cup becomes a referendum on Hazard’s maturity, as he’s tasked with leading the rest of an extremely talented squad through sky-high expectations. They should cruise against Panama and Tunisia in their group, and handily beat England if we’re being honest. But when it comes to the actual adversity in the knockout round, it’s anyone’s guess how Belgium will respond.
Goalkeepers: Koen Casteels (Wolfsburg), Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea), Simon Mignolet (Liverpool)
Defenders: Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham), Dedryck Boyata (Celtic), Leander Dendoncker (Anderlecht), Vincent Kompany (Manchester City), Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham), Thomas Vermaelen (Barcelona)
Midfielders: Yannick Carrasco (Dalian Yifang), Nacer Chadli (West Bromwich Albion), Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City), Mousa Dembele (Tottenham), Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United), Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Thorgan Hazard (Borussia Monchengladbach), Adnan Januzaj (Real Sociedad), Thomas Meunier (Paris Saint-Germain), Youri Tielemans (Monaco), Axel Witsel (Tianjin Quanjian)
Forwards: Michy Batshuayi (Borussia Dortmund), Romelu Lukaku (Manchester United), Dries Mertens (Napoli)
The Red Devils
Martínez is just a few years removed from being a hot rising star of a manager, piloting Wigan to a shock FA Cup trophy in 2013 before jumping to Everton and hitting some roadblocks. Everton fired him at the end of the 2016 season and from there he got the Belgium job, replacing Marc Wilmots after the loss to Wales in the Euros.
The starting lineups that the 44-year-old Spaniard has fielded so far have been based more on talent than chemistry—though the World Cup roster snub of Roma midfielder Radja Nainggolan was a strange choice in that context—and the results they’ve yielded have been less than ideal, particularly on defense. Martínez is known as a player’s coach, but it’s easier to develop relationships with your team when you see them every day, compared to the sporadic international schedule. After a 3-3 draw with Mexico last November, Kevin De Bruyne called out his manager and complained about the team’s tactics, lamenting how they were dominated in possession by an opponent playing in a more aggressive system. With a mandate to get his players to not just perform well, but to play well together, Martínez has yet to show that he’s up for the job.
Kevin De Bruyne
The spotlight for “Belgium’s Best Player” used to always shine on Chelsea winger Eden Hazard. But with Hazard’s team slipping down to fifth place this season, and Kevin De Bruyne’s Manchester City emerging as perhaps the greatest Premier League team of all time, it’s De Bruyne who should command the most attention from Belgium’s opponents.
There might not be anyone in the world more dangerous than De Bruyne is with the ball 30-40 yards away from goal. Both his passes and his shots are jaw-droppingly accurate, even from range, and his ability to predict both his teammates’ and the defenders’ movements borders on telepathic. If you have to bet on one Belgian man to make you say, “Wow,” this World Cup, make it De Bruyne.
Lukaku is undeniably a supremely talented striker, but just how good he can be is something yet to be determined. In a fantastic run of six seasons with West Brom, Everton, and now Manchester United, the 25-year-old has scored just under a goal every two games, but he’s also taken plenty of criticism for piling up those goals against bad teams, and failing to produce in the biggest games. Still, even the most gifted players can’t just coast their way to 101 Premier League goals, or the Belgium all-time scoring record.
Lukaku is tall and broad-shouldered in the classic striker mold, but he’s also very fast and deceptively agile, able to hustle and dribble his way into opportunities of his own creation with as much confidence as he finishes tap-ins. As the target man up top, Lukaku is able to separate himself from the crowded Belgian midfield and carve out his own space to shine. No one else on this team (and very few players in the world) can compete with his goalscoring instincts inside the box. In Belgium’s games against the dregs of this group, Lukaku will have more than his fair share of chances to thump in a few goals. But later on, he’ll have to prove that he won’t disappear in the matches that matter most.
Very enjoyably, at their best. The nominal formation is 3-4-2-1 usually, but a pick-up game mentality is what dominates, with organization and discipline taking a backseat to pure skill and offensive freedom. The lack of defenders is borne out of necessity, since Belgium don’t have much in the way of fullbacks, but their abundance of creative midfielders, plus Lukaku up front, make them a nearly unstoppable force on the attack.
That is, when they can all coexist. There’s still not a clear blueprint for how to maximize all these guys’ strengths when they’re on the field together, and granting the top players license to run wild on the opposition should allow Belgium to torch the group stage, but might get them stuck into high-scoring barnburners later in the tournament. The success of Belgium in the tougher games, then, will depend on the capacity of the more defensive-minded players to protect their penalty area, and the ability of two dominant playmakers, Hazard and De Bruyne, to compliment rather than overlap each other. Belgium’s talent alone should be enough to get them past most of the field, but it won’t work on everybody.
All times Eastern
June 18, 11 a.m.: Belgium vs. Panama at Fisht Stadium
June 23, 8 a.m.: Belgium vs. Tunisia at Spartak Stadium
June 28, 2 p.m.: England vs. Belgium at Kaliningrad Stadium