SAO PAULO, Brazil — Before every World Cup, soccer anoints a team to disrupt the status quo. In 1994, Colombia accepted the deed following a superb qualifying campaign but crashed out after a week. Portugal came and went quickly in 2002. West African teams have flirted with — but never realized — contender status.
In 2014, Belgium is the chosen one.
Les Diables Rouges, the Red Devils, captured the public’s fancy with an unbeaten record in the European qualifiers. With one of the tournament’s most impressive rosters, they figured to sweep through a lightweight group and position themselves for a deep run along with traditional favorites Brazil, Argentina and Germany.
The burden on unproven sides, though, is heavy. Do they possess the experience of their tested brethren to endure difficult moments? Are they able to live up to mounting expectations? Is it really their time to shine?
The Belgians raced through Group H unblemished but hardly unbothered, and although they are favorites against the United States in a round-of-16 match Tuesday in Salvador, questions linger about their capability in the sport’s ultimate competition.
“We must be aware this is a young group from a country which had not qualified for big tournaments for the past 12 years,” Coach Marc Wilmots cautioned in the months leading to the World Cup.
Despite rising status, the Red Devils arrived in Brazil with a light portfolio: They missed the previous two World Cups and three consecutive European Championships. They’ve gone beyond the second round of the World Cup once (1986, semifinals).
They are held in high regard, though, because of a sublime generation of players scattered throughout the top European leagues. The market value of Belgium’s World Cup roster — calculated by club salaries and transfer rates — is among the highest in the tournament.
While on loan from Chelsea, goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, 22, anchored Atletico Madrid’s march to the Champions League final. Midfielder Eden Hazard, 23, is a Premier League star at Chelsea.
Midfielder Kevin De Bruyne, 23, moved to Wolfsburg from Chelsea last winter. Forward Romelu Lukaku, 21, scored 15 goals for Everton last season while on loan from Chelsea.
A bit older, captain Vincent Kompany, 28, moored Manchester City’s back line, and midfielder Marouane Fellaini, 26, joined Manchester United last year.
“They have got so many good players — young players, strong, fast, good on the ball,” said U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard, an Everton teammate of Lukaku and forward Kevin Mirallas and a former colleague of Fellaini.
Fellaini is unmistakable on the field: His hair is enormous.
Belgium did win eight of 10 qualifiers and tie the other two (in a six-team group that included contenders Croatia and Serbia) while recording an 18-4 scoring margin. By rising to fifth in the FIFA rankings last fall, the Red Devils secured one of the eight top seeds in the World Cup.
In a middling quartet, though, the Red Devils did not overwhelm. In the opener against Algeria, they scored in the 70th and 80th minutes to claim a 2-1 victory. Facing Russia, they were locked in a scoreless match until Divock Origi, a 19-year-old forward, struck in the 88th minute.
With first place all but clinched, Wilmots rested several regulars in the group finale against South Korea. Again, though, a late goal provided the margin: Jan Vertonghen in the 78th.
“It’s no easy task to finish the group stage with nine points,” said Wilmots, who served on four Belgian World Cup squads and scored five goals. “It’s a truly historic achievement for Belgium. We’re here to win, not to play beautiful football, and we’ve accomplished our mission.”
Concerns remain: Reserve midfielder Steven Defour was red-carded against the Koreans and will miss the U.S. match. Kompany is in a race against time to recover from a groin ailment. Left back Thomas Vermaelen (thigh) is questionable, reserve right back Anthony Vanden Borre is out with a broken ankle and backup defender Laurent Ciman is battling a groin injury.
Nonetheless, confidence runs high.
“We intend to carry on winning,” Hazard said. “Each time, we inspire more fear.”
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