The 2014 World Cup in Brazil might seem far off, but the long, circuitous road to get there is well under way for 208 teams all over the world. Only 32 will make it, so the competition is fierce. Qualifying began this weekend in Europe, where 53 teams are fighting for 13 spots.
Eight groups of six and one group of five comprise the European zone. Each of the nine group winners automatically earns a World Cup berth, and the best eight runners-up enter a playoff for the remaining four slots. Defending World Cup and European champion Spain wound up in the same group as France, under new coach Didier Deschamps, so all eyes will be on that battle. England and Ukraine are in the same group, as are Portugal and Russia.
But the team everyone is buzzing about is Belgium. Yes, Belgium, a team ranked 40th in the most recent FIFA rankings. The Belgian squad is stacked with high-priced talent, and beat Netherlands 4-2 in a recent friendly.
Belgium boasts 10 players from the English Premier League, including the captains of Manchester City (Vincent Kompany) and Arsenal (Thomas Vermaelen). Chelsea paid $45 million for Eden Hazard, Zenit St. Petersburg paid roughly the same for Axel Witsel, and Tottenham Hotspur shelled out $22 million for Moussa Dembele and $15 million for Jan Vertonghen.
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Belgian newspaper La Derniere Heure claimed Belgium’s likely starting 11 is the third-most expensive in the world — at $226 million in transfer fees — behind only Brazil and Portugal. Only four of the 25 players make a living in the Belgian league.
Other top players include Everton’s Marouane Fellaini and Kevin Mirallas, Sunderland goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, Aston Villa’s Christian Benteke, West Brom striker Romelu Lukaku, Porto’s Steven Defour, and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, on loan from Chelsea to Atletico Madrid.
Despite that collection of talent, which has been nicknamed the “Golden Generation,” Belgium has failed to qualify for a major tournament in a decade after qualifying for every World Cup from 1982 to 2002. The Belgians got as far as the semifinals in 1986 before losing 2-0 to Diego Maradona’s Argentina team. This year, the Rode Duivels (Red Devils) didn’t qualify for the 2012 European Championship, falling to Germany and Turkey in group play.
Why? How can a team so talented not have more success? One reason, experts said, is the team’s lack of discipline. There have been reports of locker-room bickering and excessive partying.
Belgium’s manager, Marc Wilmots, played midfield for Belgium from 1990 to 2002. He and his players shrugged off the “Golden Generation” nickname and high expectations heading into Friday’s qualifying opener in Wales.
“A good team is based solely on results,” Wilmots said.
Added Lukaku: “We haven’t achieved anything. We have to keep both feet on the ground. If we do better than the team of ’86 then you can talk of us as the golden era.
“We will have to see in a few years.”
Belgium plays Croatia on Tuesday in Brussels, and on Oct. 12 they play Serbia in Belgrade.
Other European qualifying story lines:
• Can Spain keep on winning? The Spaniards pulled off the rare Euro-World Cup-Euro trifecta by beating Italy in the 2012 European championship. Skeptics wonder whether Spanish players can still be motivated after so much winning. They insist they are.
“This is a unique, unforgettable generation, but we can’t stop now,” defender Gerard Pique told The Guardian. “We have to try to keep winning until our bodies give up and say, ‘No more.’ Then we’ll retire.”
Said manager Vicente del Bosque: “It is important that we are always an example for the people who are watching our games. We know that we have to play well and have to look good.”
• Will the Dutch finally reach their potential under new coach Louis van Gaal? He dropped Rafael van der Vaart, Nigel de Jong and Ibrahim Afellay for the first two matches against Turkey and Hungary. He also has to decide how to best use Robin van Persie and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.
• How will England do?
The English team, which went unbeaten in Euro 2012 qualifying, is getting old. John Terry, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Ashley Cole will all be at least 33 by the summer of 2014.
But do you gamble on new players at this point? Probably not.
England will be without Wayne Rooney (leg gash) for Tuesday’s game against Ukraine, but there is plenty of English firepower up front. Anything less than a first-place finish in the group will be considered disastrous.