Group H: Belgium, Algeria, Russia, Korea
My dark horse team in the 2014 World Cup has got to be Belgium. This nation is experiencing a golden age in soccer. There are countless young talented playes being developed in Belgium,set to surprise a lot of people.
Although Belgium has failed to reach the World Cup since 2002, they are making a return with a very strong and youthful team. The starting eleven is made up of, debatably, world-class players in every position. But because of their inexperience, in terms of playing in major competitions, not much is expected of them.
That last time Belgium performed on the World Cup stage was in South Korea and Japan. They were knocked out in the round of 16, losing 2-0 to Brazil, who would go on to beat Germany 2-0 in the finals.
With the new crop of talent, Belgium as a soccer nation is undergoing an incredible transformation. With world-class players like Chelsea midfielder Eden Hazard, Manchester City defender Vincent Kompany and Tottenham center back Jan Vertonghen, the team is destined for success in the World Cup.
“You have to lose big, before you can win big,” said Brendan Dunlop.
“Belgium is in a real golden period with some superstar players that their country has never seen, have never developed players of that calibre before. Look from top to bottom, they have ten potentially world-class players. They have a few that are world-class already in Eden Hazard and I’m going to say it, Romelu Lukaku is as well. Jose Mourinho doesn’t think that way but I honestly do.”
Whether they fall out in the round of 16 or get as far as the quarterfinals, Belgium should consider it as a success.
The youthful and dynamic look of this squad can cause a lot of problem for any of the top teams. The average age of this Belgium team is 26. There are only two players, Daniel Van Buyten, 36 and Timmy Simons, 37 that are older than 30.
Apart from those mentioned, the squad boasts of a host of other young talents. Aston Villa striker, Christian Benteke and Chelsea striker Romelu Lukaku, on loan at Everton, who is arguably a world-class striker, can propel Belgium – not to mention a midfield of Marouane Fellaini, Kevin De Bruyne, Axel Witsel, Moussa Dembele, Kevin Mirallas and Serie A duo, Radja Nainggolan of AS Roma and Dries Mertens of Napoli.
What Belgium considers their strength can also work against them. Being the young and inexperienced team that they are, it can hinder their chances of progressing deep into the tournament. They do lack major tournament experience. Though they have a deep squad full of blooming talent, how far can that take them in the World Cup? Teams like Spain, Netherlands, Brazil and Germany have that experience of playing in these tournaments.
“I do think the fact that they are so young and haven’t tasted the international stage in a long time that’s going to work against them,” said Dunlop.
“I expect them to certainly get to the knockout stages, but I wouldn’t be stunned if they didn’t because it’s a totally different world.”
Regardless of how deep Belgium gets in the tournament, their performance will be looked upon as a success, having not qualified for two straight World Cups.
“A quarterfinals exit will be a real success because 2016 will be a good building block, and as they age and mature, especially upfront, their young elite superstars should be world-class by then,” said Dunlop.