One of the best dribblers in the game today, the 23-year-old attacking midfielder has proved himself several times over already as a game-changer in the Premier League. He’s also the crown jewel in Belgium’s glittering young team.
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After a brief halcyon era in the 1980s, when a golden generation placed fourth at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, a period of respectability followed in the 1990s. After being denied a perfectly good Marc Wilmots goal in the round of 16 against Brazil at the 2002 World Cup, eventually inducing their 2-0 loss, they never made it back onto the world stage until now.
A few years ago, there was talk of Belgium breaking up over a squabble between its Dutch- and French-speaking factions. Had that happened this Belgian side wouldn’t have been seen as an outsider for this World Cup. In fact, it might not even have made it to Brazil at all, as the talent pool would have been split in half about evenly. But the country stayed together and so did the team. Still, it had other issues to overcome. As one would expect when a wave of young wonderkids quickly pushes out an established core of wily but unspectacular veterans, there was friction. There was much talk of partying on the eve of big games. And the medical staff quit in unison over the young stars' behavior. Under Wilmots, who is now the head coach, all of that seems to be in the past. His players have matured and moved to top clubs in major leagues, where they were imbued with more professional attitudes.
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How they got here
After several frustrating campaigns, this band of prodigies put it all together and went undefeated in qualifying, winning all five of their games on the road. In 10 games, they conceded just four goals in a tough group that also included Croatia and Serbia.
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Peachy. Since only one player on the team has been to a World Cup, their introduction to the tournament will be gentle with most favorable matchups against Algeria, Russia and South Korea in Group H.
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Round of 16 prospects
Manageable. The trick here will be to avoid Germany in the cross-over with Group G, which can be achieved by both teams placing first or both coming second. If the Belgians manage that, they will probably get Portugal or Ghana in the next round, and that’s achievable.
AFP/Getty ImagesJOHN THYS
Few countries, if any, can boast as much young talent as Belgium does, in spite of only being the size of Maryland and counting just 11 million citizens -- Hazard, Vincent Kompany, Marouane Fellaini, Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne and on and on and on. In spite of their age, they are already an outsider for the title, with the needed personnel in every line to match up with just about anybody the World Cup can throw at them. But they are also internationally inexperienced, meaning a quarterfinal showing would be a fine result. Which isn’t to say that they can’t go further.