How far can Belgium go?
RIO DE JANEIRO -- In December at the World Cup draw in Costa do Sauipe, Marc Wilmots seemed relieved to have found refuge from the stifling heat that made wearing a suit a tough task. The Belgium manager also didn't measure his words. At only the second hyperbolic question about his Belgium side's chances in Brazil, the manager interrupted the pack of journalists around him.
"I don't understand why you guys keep bigging the boys up. They are a talented bunch, but nobody should expect an easy ride at the World Cup," he snapped.
A former international with four World Cups on his CV, Wilmots knew that Belgium's unbeaten qualifying campaign and subsequent climb up the FIFA rankings were no guarantee of an easy ride in Brazil.
The manager proved he wasn't just playing the usual evasive card either. After two games, the Belgians have guaranteed passage to the round of 16, but they have hardly cruised. After mounting a late comeback against Algeria, Belgium struggled against an organized Russian side that did more than just try to absorb the attacking waves from Eden Hazard and his teammates. Russia eventually capitulated in the 88th minute, courtesy of basically the first real inch of space Hazard found in the box before setting up Divock Origi for what would be the winning goal. Belgium will now face South Korea to determine whether they finish first or second in Group H.
Few would bet they will miss out on the top spot, which means they would play the team that finishes second in Group G. As things stand, Belgium seem likely to avoid Germany in the round of 16, but it could still mean a tough opponent would cross their path given how balanced the supposed group of death has been.
Above all, the Hazard generation will play a knockout game at the World Cup for the first time. With the third-youngest squad in the competition -- average age: 25.5 years -- Belgium will have to handle edgier times and edgier teams while still trying to shoulder the weight of expectations deposited on them.
Hardly one of the traditionally strongest footballing nations in Europe, Belgium missed out on two of the past three World Cups and memories of their semifinal run in 1986 are distant. Much has been said of their return to the tournament, including a dissection of youth academy policies and Belgian FA blueprints, but Wilmots publicly rubbished the intelligent design hypothesis. Instead, he credited the spirit of this generation, especially the decision to leave Belgium and play abroad even at a younger age. Eleven of the 23 players he brought to Brazil ply their trade in England, and there are only three domestic players in his squad, none of whom start.
No matter how they came through, it is still an interesting generation schooled in some of the toughest leagues in the world.
Though it has given them experience, the World Cup is another story. You could notice that the Maracanã fazed some of the Red Devils; for most of the game Sunday, it was Russia that had the initiative. Thibaut Courtois made two sharp saves, and the outfield players seemed to struggle to overcome Fabio Capello's tactical trap. (Russia have been one of the few teams Luiz Felipe Scolari's Brazil couldn't beat; in March last year, the Seleção were lucky to get away with a draw in London.)
Belgium were lucky at the end, although Hazard deserved all the hugs he received from his teammates after his little piece of trickery removed some of the anxiety about their potentially tricky tie vs. South Korea in Sao Paulo on Thursday. But above all, the Rio game, as well as their thriller against Algeria in Belo Horizonte, showed a hell of a learning curve. Belgium are aware now that they will have to win some games ugly if they are to go far in Brazil.
"We can't do things pretty all the time. We need to be efficient," Wilmots said after the game on Sunday.
His players repeated the importance of the points won as a mantra. Marouane Fellaini, albeit without the madman expression so characteristic of Wilmots, made it clear that he didn't care how some parts of the crowd in Rio complained about the 1-0 win's low quality. "They are really entitled to an opinion, but we had the objective to qualify to the next round and that is really what matters at the end of the day. We will be judged on results," the Manchester United man said.
Still, Belgium have been genuinely tested by sides that people didn't think would give them so much hassle. It won't get any easier from now on, so the young Red Devils had better be ready. Although they might be many fans' unofficial second team at this World Cup, they are also an attractive target for other sides to take down.
Fernando Duarte is a U.K.-based Brazilian football expert who has reported on the Selecao for over a decade. Follow him on Twitter: @Fernando_Duarte.