Belgium’s new golden generation makes its World Cup debut


Despite a dearth of major tournament experience, Romelu Lukaku and Belgium are a trendy pick to make a run to the knockout stages. (Yves Logghe / Associated Press)

From 1982 to 2002, Belgium qualified for six consecutive World Cups and advanced out of the group stage in all but one. The players who made up those teams were hailed as the golden generation back home.

The tiny European nation hasn’t sniffed the world’s premier sporting event — or a European championship tournament, for that matter — since. But the young, brash and hopeful group that will represent Belgium in Brazil could be the perfect squad to raise the Red Devils to new heights.

From their last line of defense to their aggressive attackers, Belgium boasts more than enough talent to feast on an otherwise ho-hum Group H. Twenty-two-year-old goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois helped lead Atletico Madrid on its stunning run to the La Liga title while 23-year-old Eden Hazard was pouring in 14 goals for Chelsea to establish himself as a coveted commodity.

Belgium’s midfield features control their possession game with Kevin De Bruyne (Wolfsburg) and Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United) – who may have the biggest hair in the tournament – setting the table for Hazard and Romelu Lukaku atop an attack-minded 4-3-3 formation. On defense, Manchester City stalwart Vincent Kompany serves as the team’s captain and the anchor for a talented backline that can be susceptible to counter attacks.

The Red Devils rolled through qualifying without suffering a loss and conceded only four goals while scoring 18. They’re big and physical, none moreso than the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Lukaku, and should pose major problems for Algeria in their opener Tuesday in Belo Horizonte.

The last image of Belgium in a World Cup saw a disallowed Marc Wilmots goal (on a phantom foul call) deny the team a 1-0 lead on Brazil in the 2002 round-of-16. Brazil went on to win the match 2-0, and eventually, the Cup.

Twelve years later, Wilmots is the coach of a team built through an overhauled national youth system designed to produce sustained success at the international level. The average age of the projected starting 11 is less than 25. But with only one World Cup veteran on the roster in defender Daniel Van Buyten (Bayern Munich), the Red Devils must prove they can live up to their potential on the world stage.

“This generation will shine at their brightest in the years to come. They’re still young and can improve a lot,” Wilmots said ahead of his team’s first contest. “However, we have to be realistic and give them time.”

With a group primed for the taking, that time could be now.

The Post's Rio de Janeiro correspondent Dom Phillips takes PostTV on a tour of one of Brazil's most enjoyed attractions, Ipanema Beach. (Nicki DeMarco and Dom Phillips/The Washington Post)

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