SAO PAULO (AP) — Every World Cup has one of them: an outsider that you cannot help but like as it overachieves, often right into the semifinals. Sometimes even beyond.
This time, what is there not to like about young Belgium? The Red Devils have reached their first World Cup since 2002, but has a team full of players that have already made a mark in the Premier League and La Liga.
Belgium is among the youngest of the 32 teams at an average age of 25 years, 11 months, but its players are unlikely to crumble under pressure. And in a first-round Group H with Algeria, Russia and South Korea, they should be able to advance to the knock-stage where national history can be made in the span of 90 minutes.
“We are full of confidence heading to Brazil,” midfielder Steven Defour said
The unpredictable nature of a football match makes the World Cup a prime hunting ground for outsiders. Two teams even won it carrying that tag.
West Germany was unseeded in 1954 and first lost 8-3 to Hungary in the group stage before doing the unthinkable against the Magical Magyars, who had been undefeated for four years. They beat them 3-2 in the final, which is still known across Germany as “Das Wunder von Bern” — “The Miracle of Bern ” — because not only did it produce the country’s first World Cup title, it also finally gave the nation a major sense of self-respect eight years after World War II.
Four years earlier, Uruguay had delivered a similar shock, beating Brazil at the Maracana with 170,000-plus fans rooting against them in the decisive game of the 1950 edition. The loss to its neighbor still ranks up there among the biggest sporting disappointments for Brazil.
In the modern-day game, it has become harder and harder for the smaller teams to break through the established powers’ ironclad defenses to pull off a streak of upsets.
Ever since the Netherlands reached the final as a post-war novice at the World Cup in 1974, the semifinal stage has been the farthest a true outsider has been able to get. But the list of unexpected teams in the last four since then is quite long. Poland made it in 1982, Sweden in 1994, and Croatia in 1998. The 2002 tournament saw both Turkey and South Korea in the semifinals.
Uruguay reached the last four in South Africa four years ago, but the quarterfinal antics of Luis Suarez denying Ghana a winning goal with a deliberate handball took much off the veneer of being a lovable underdog.
This year, it could be Belgium’s turn to play the part.
The small nation of 11 million shoehorned in between France, Germany and the Netherlands is a natural fit for an underdog, and it can draw inspiration from its own history. At the 1986 World Cup, Belgium struggled through the first round before coming alive with upset wins over the Soviet Union and Spain.
It took the outstanding Diego Maradona to deny them a place in the final. Despite coming two games short of the ultimate prize, that team remains the toast of the nation to this very day.
This time around, Belgium returns with a team almost exclusively made up of World Cup rookies — with only defender Daniel Van Buyten a veteran of the 2002 campaign.
But their club performances show that they are ready for the sport’s biggest stage.
Vincent Kompany captained Manchester City to its second Premier League title in just three years. Eden Hazard, 23, proved himself as a playmaker at Chelsea and Romelu Lukaku, 21, excelled as a striker for Everton.
And, most notably, Thibaut Courtois, at 22, is already considered one of the best goalkeepers around. The Atletico Madrid goalkeeper already faces the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo several times a season and has proven amazingly cool under pressure.
So is Belgium ready to become World champion?
“If everything — really everything — fits,” coach Marc Wilmots said.
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