BRUSSELS (AP) — With only a few notable exceptions, Belgium has often been a team bigger than the sum of its players.
This time, after an absence of 12 years, the Belgians are back at the World Cup with several players known around the world, including Vincent Kompany and Eden Hazard.
Just about the entire team plays abroad, and many in the biggest leagues, giving the Belgians a hope they haven’t had since reaching the semifinals in 1986.
Here are five players to watch:
If anyone epitomizes the revival of Belgian football, it is central defender Vincent Kompany.
Kompany was a prodigy at 17 with Anderlecht, and in 2012 he was the rock on which Manchester City built its first Premier League title in 44 years.
Now 28, he continues to be the anchor for one of the richest teams in one of the world’s toughest leagues after he captained City to a second title in three years.
Beyond his positioning and physical prowess, Kompany is best known for his leadership qualities, earning him the undisputed captaincy of the Belgian national team.
If Vincent Kompany is dependency personified, Eden Hazard is counted on for creativity. And if he extends the way he has been playing for Chelsea on the World Cup stage in Brazil, he could well become one of the marquee players of the tournament.
Hazard developed his skills for Lille in the French league, and his speed, agility, passing precision and tactical insight turned him into the best player of that league before Chelsea lured him to London.
Outplay Belgium and there still remains one massive problem for any team at the World Cup — how to get past goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.
Like so many Belgians, he looked abroad from an early age and left Racing Genk for Chelsea, which almost immediately sent him on to Atletico Madrid.
What looked like a demotion for some turned out to be a gift unlike few others.
Courtois won the Europa League as a teenager, the Copa del Rey over Real Madrid last season, and La Liga this season. He also helped his team reach the Champions League final, where it lost to Real. He faces some of the world’s best strikers on a weekly basis to hone his skills.
At 22, the towering goalkeeper with an immense reach is already one of the best in the world.
An all-out striker has never been Belgium’s forte. And amid the glittering array of goalkeepers, defenders and playmakers, it is up to Romelu Lukaku to impose himself as the team’s fearful frontman.
Lukaku already did so in the match that qualified Belgium for the World Cup, scoring two first-half goals in Croatia that effectively muzzled the home team.
A striker that uses body and bulk rather than sweet skills, Lukaku keeps bouncing back. At 20, he has already faced several setbacks at Chelsea, but when he went to West Bromwich Albion and, this season, to Everton, he always proved there was plenty left in him.
To back it up, he scored a hat trick in Belgium’s 5-1 warm-up win over Luxembourg.
KEVIN DE BRUYNE
Lanky winger Kevin De Bruyne has had perhaps the strongest World Cup qualifying campaign of all Belgians.
At club level, though, the 23-year-old De Bruyne has had a disappointing start to the year. He started out with high ambitions with Chelsea, but after he fell out with manager Jose Mourinho, he rarely made it past the bench.
Showing his resilience he quickly revived his career in the Bundesliga with Wolfsburg.
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