Belgium has always been the best of the European middle powers. From time to time they do well, but they have never won a major international tournament. But in recent decades Belgian football has continuously improved, and now they have a team of multiple strong on all positions, and a perhaps the best attacking trio in the game right now.
De Bruyne is the midfield European king of assists, Eden Hazard is possibly the best European number 10, and Romulu Lukaku up front might in time cement himself as the best number 9. On Transfermarkt those 3 are all in the top20 of the highest valued players in the world. Argentina, England and France also have 3 in that top20, but their trios are far from as complementary as the Belgian.
But Belgium is not just those 3, they have maybe not World class players on all positions, but more than good enough, and a bench full of added talent. So much that number 98 of the mentioned Transfermarkt list, Radja Nainggolan, did not make the World Cup squad for tactical reasons.
Often Belgium has been known to have attacking talent, but they also have a core of defensive players, who have all played well over 50 games for the national team, and know each other very well.
Belgium plays 3-4-2-1. This fits the players. They central defenders are good in a 3-back-line, and they are better than their backs, who often suffer from being too attacking. So 3 at the back seems like a perfect solution. One could at times look at the formation and think Belgium has 7 defensive players and 3 attacking, but the way the Belgians play their system, then the 4 join the attack as much as they defend. This means Belgium can push forward very fast with a lot of players, who can pass the ball at a very high technical level. And with the pace of the attacking players, then they have a team, which are by some consider outsiders to winning the World Cup. Belgium har simply never had a better team, and they are not some mixed and match all-star team, these players know each other, and compliment each other extremely well.
Where do the Belgians play?
10 play for the leading Premier League clubs in England (Tottenham 3, Manchester United 2, Manchester City 2, Chelsea 2, and Liverpool 1). And 1 in West Bromwich Albion, who finished last. The top league in the World. De Bruyne, Hazard, and Lukaku are each the star of their team.
Beyond that you have players all over Europe (Germany 3, France 2, Spain 2, Italy 1, and Scotland 1), 2 in China, and 1 playing for Anderlecht, which is the traditionally the best Belgian club. Belgian football used to be a major league in Europe, but with time this has diminished, and today young talent often start in Belgium, but move the the larger European leagues at a very early age.
There are a couple of 32 year olds in the squad, but in general this is a team, which is likely to still be around in 4 years, so this might not even be Belgium at their best yet.
Political influence and national narrative
Belgium is known for its regions, many governments, and complex political system. And also the clear language barrier between Wallonia and Flanders. There has in the past been problems with cliques of French and Dutch speaking players, which has in the past caused trouble building unit cohesion. And as with many other squads you have a significant amount of players with dual citizenship. Actually half of the squad. 5 of these from the former Belgium colony, which today is DR Congo (including Lukaku). As with Switzerland and France, then football is in many ways the great integrator.
A World Cup trophy would do great for building a more unified national narrative across linguistic separation, and might lead to a more unified Belgium. Just as with Spain, Italy, and others, then internal disagreements tend to be dropped, when you can come together over the World Cup. And especially over celebrating a trophy.
Group and expectations
Belgium and England unsurprisingly have demolished Panama and Tunisia. Each of the Europeans have 6 points and are through. The non-Europeans have 0. In a way the last round of group games is more about glory than needed results.
Belgium’s group G is paired with probably the worst group of the tournament, which is H. H’s last games are played before G, so Belgium and England might actually have something to play for, if one of the really want to avoid the group H winners. But as neither should have any trouble against Japan, Senegal, or Colombia if they want to go far, then you might see reserves play a significant part in the Belgium-England game. But on the other hand, then you have teams, which are highly motivated and in good form, who might want to ride of the wave of their momentum. And they are not countries famous for focusing on the tactical aspect above all else, so we might still see an absolute group final, where Lukaku and Kane would want to grab more goals, as they are in contention for the golden boot (topscore’s trophy).
As mentioned, H should not be a problem. But of course any team through form the group at a World Cup should never be underestimated, but I would be shocked if both England and especially Belgium did not make it to the quarterfinals. Interestingly the team to avoid might mostly be Brazil in a quarterfinal, so winning or losing for England and Belgium might be a matter of where Brazil finish in their group. Sweden, Mexico, Switzerland, and Serbia are all seemingly easier quarterfinal opponents.
So if Belgium has the right kind of luck, then they could very easily end up in a semi-final, and there they would either face another surprise, or a under-performing member of the big 8 (Brazil, Argentina, France, Spain – England end up in the other half of the bracket, Germany are out, and Italy and the Netherlands did not qualify). If Belgium and England both keep up their current form, then this last group game could be a rehearsal for the World Cup final. And if one side shows clear weakness, then they are likely not going to have what it take to make it that far.
So expectation are if Belgium can decisively beat England, then they are the team on form, and which has not shown any real weakness at any point. This makes them my favourite to win the World Cup. But only if they can decisively beat the English.
This was the final European country at the World Cup, and therefore the final article of this series. Hopefully you have enjoyed them and are enjoying the World Cup.
I must apologies to our Swiss readers for me learning on the job that “Swizz” does not mean something from Switzerland. That is hopefully the only horrible mistake, but otherwise feel free to debate them on My Country? Europe.’s facebook page, where this will be posted. Consider joining our facebook group connected to the page, if you want to get in on the football banter, or like to debate European culture.
Europe do not have (and I my opinion should never have) a singular team at the World Cup. Football is the time to be focused on our member states instead of the European cooperation, it is where we can settle our difference through 11 champions representing us on the pitch (Belgium vs. England might have a bit of a Brussels vs. Brexit narrative for some). Something to guard our national culture, so we with no fear can grow our shared European culture and integrate politically.
If your nation is not playing, then it is a great time to show your Europeanness by supporting your long-term rivals. Denmark was in Euro 1992 carried to victory not just by Danish supporters, but also by the local Swedes, who backed their Scandinavian brothers in their knock-out games. No occasion is better to show brotherly European love, than when historical adversary needs you the most during their World Cup games. No matter if that means Spanish, Portuguese, French, Danish, Croatian, Serbian, Swiss, Swedish, English, or Belgian football finish on top.
Have a great World Cup and Forza Europe!