Belgium have never won a World Cup. Nor have they won a European championship. In fact, the only 'title' the men's national team can claim is a gold medal in the 1920 Antwerp Olympics. So why is it that in 2018, many fans and pundits think the Diables Rouges have a legitimate chance of winning football's biggest prize?
Belgium have only recently undergone a resurrection that sees them sitting in 5th place in FIFA's world ranking at the time of writing. After reaching the round of 16 in the 2002 FIFA World Cup (where they lost to eventual winners Brazil, partially thanks to a controversially disallowed goal), Belgium failed to qualify for the next two tournaments.
They resurfaced at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil under the stewardship of coach Marc Wilmots, but lost in the quarter finals to Argentina. Still, the team showed a drastic improvement, and were even ranked as the number one team in the world in 2015. Not bad for a nation of just 11 million.
Belgium's attacking options for the 2018 World Cup:
Kevin De Bruyne
Dennis Praet pic.twitter.com/fPVNpxU1H3
— FourFourTweet (@FourFourTweet) March 8, 2018
At the 2016 European Championships, Belgium entered the tournament as a dark horse for the crown, and it was easy to see why. Belgium's squad contained a plethora of established footballing talent, including Premier League stars Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Jan V ertonghen .
Yet the team suffered a shock exit at the quarterfinal stage, losing to underdog Wales 3-1 . Coach Wilmots was sacked following the competition, and some wondered if Belgium would ever fulfil its potential during its 'golden era' - much like England failed to do in the mid-2000's.
However, that era is not over yet, and Belgium realize the opportunity that now awaits them in Russia. The Red Devils became the first European nation to qualify for the World Cup, winning nine games, drawing one and scoring 43 goals in the process.
They've been handed a fairly easy group, with England their toughest opponent alongside minnows Panama and Tunisia. But much of Belgium's performance at this World Cup rests on the shoulders of Spanish coach Roberto Martinez.
— Kristof Terreur (@HLNinEngeland) March 20, 2018
Hired in 2016 after Wilmot's dismissal, the former Everton manager must find a way to use the talent at his disposal wisely. In De Bruyne and Hazard he has two of Europe's best playmakers. De Bruyne has 11 goals and 19 assists in all competitions in the 2017/18 season, while Hazard has an impressive 15 and 11.
Lukaku is a massive (literally) goal threat, and at 24, is already Belgium's all-time record goal scorer. Belgium's defence is stout, thanks to the presence of V ertonghen , Toby Alderweireld and captain Vincent Kompany; conceding only six times as they won Group H at a canter during World Cup qualifying.
That's six of Belgium's key players, but take a look at some of the other major names Martinez can call on: Mousa Dembélé, Michy Batshuayi, Dries Mertens, Thomas Meunier, & Thibaut Courtois.
Yet questions still surround Martinez's coaching acumen. The Catalan has had managerial spells at Swansea, Wigan - winning the FA Cup in 2013 - and Everton. In his first season as manager of the Toffees, Martinez helped guide the club to a fifth placed finish, but the club never reached the same heights under his tenure, and Martinez was sacked after three years in charge.
Belgium appointed Martinez as head coach in August, and he successfully guided them to World Cup qualification without losing a single match (W9, D1, L0). But after a 3-3 draw against Mexico in a friendly last November, De Bruyne critiqued Martinez for his poor tactics. Quite a worrying sign from one of your star players ahead of the World Cup.
Fortunately, Martinez has some time to adjust before Belgium kicks off their World Cup campaign against Panama on June 18th. Belgium plays a friendly against Saudi Arabia on March 27th, so Martinez should be able to experiment with different formations and strategies.
If Martinez is able to find a formula that works, and if is he able to lean on the lessons learned from the last two international tournaments, then there is no reason why Belgium can't make it to the FIFA World Cup Final - and perhaps shock everyone by winning the whole thing.