So hot right now.
It’s the go-to line when you want to lampoon the perceived ‘football hipster’ attitude. “Sure, Real Madrid are pretty good, but have you been following Colo-Colo, the serial champions of Chile?” The concept of the scarf-wearing, typewriter-using, lover of things before they were cool hipster doesn’t really exist as the tellers of hipster jokes would like it to, and certainly not in football. What kind of football fan would actively try to wring the few drips of quality out some obscure team from some unknown league purely for the hipster-prestige that comes with dedicating oneself to the non-mainstream? As if the massive popularity of the Premier League, or La Liga would invalidate the fact that these leagues unquestionably hold the teams and players who play the game the best. And yet, to the delight and for the benefit of the unimaginative sports-based comedian, the football hipster stereotype endures. For a long time the Belgian national team was so the hottest and the right now-est team around. Alas, thanks to the migration of almost all of the Belgian stars and starlets to bigger teams, they have become far too well known to retain the hipster title. Or maybe they were awarded “the hipster title” and the recognition that followed is what ruined them, like when you hear your parents listening to the band you’re listening to, so you have to stop listening to them. Whatever the complex mechanics of hipster/non-hipster turnover, it remains that the Belgium squad for Brazil is scarily good on paper, and young.
Looking at the team, you can literally start anywhere on the park, and soon enough you’ll find a top quality player, more than likely under 30. Thibaut Courtois, the best keeper in Spain (still contracted to Chelsea) is backed up by Liverpool’s premier shot stopper Simon Mignolet. Vincent Kompany, maybe the best defender in Britain is their captain and starting centre back. He is accompanied in defence by Jan Vertonghen, Daniel van Buyten and Thomas Vermaelen, to name a few. There is a perfect mix of youthful vitality and hardened experience in defence for Belgium, and Courtois, Mignolet and Kompany will go into the World Cup on the back of tremendously successful seasons for their clubs.
The midfield is better than the defence. Axel Witsel may have made a questionable career move when he decided to go to Zenit St Petersburg (although not in terms of his salary) but he is a strong and skilful midfielder, just entering his prime at age 25. Alongside him is a fellow named Marouane Fellaini, who, let me see here…big transfer this season… league champions… what’s this quote “incredibly immobile and slower than a 5 year old putting his shoes on…” erm, well his season hasn’t been great, but what better opportunity to shrug off this season than exploding into the bustling, physical battering ram we all know he can be. Moussa Dembele is a wily creator, a mercurial dribbler at his best who is also able to play a more defensively minded role if needed. Porto’s Steven Defour is there too, and Nacer Chadli, who showed glimpses of his quality this season with Tottenham, can play centrally or out wide. There is quality coverage for both the holding and attacking midfielder roles.
The attack is better than the midfield. Even after having been shorn of Christian Benteke, Belgium’s pointy end is just about the pointiest going to Brazil. Romelu Lukaku is a fearsome beast of a striker, a force very, very few defences can contain when he’s on form. Kevin de Bruyne, Kevin Mirallas and the newest Belgian gem, Adnan Januzaj, can all play on either flank and possess incredible speed, dribbling ability and passing technique. But the biggest, sparkliest jewel in the crown is the current PFA Young Player of the Year, Eden Hazard. Hazard arrived at Chelsea surrounded by a ridiculous amount of hype, maybe too much, but this last season has emerged as Chelsea’s most important player. He is an attacker with the Messi-like ability to dribble through, not past or around, straight through defences. His low centre of gravity, his tree-trunk legs and explosive first few strides allow him to embarrass ill-prepared full backs with ease. When a cross seems impossible, that surely there isn’t enough room down the byline, Hazard proves that not only there is enough room (and that we’re all mugs) but that he can put the ball on a plate for his striker to tap in at the far post. He can finish with assuredness from close range or distance and can play across the entire line behind the striker. On the back of his best season in England so far, and at 23 years old, he is primed to make this World Cup his own.
The second unit isn’t as strong as the starting 11 and there is a distinct lack of World Cup experience in the squad. But Belgium have an easy group; only Russia should pose much of a challenge, with South Korea and Algeria expected to lose, possibly heavily, to Hazard et al. The dreaded ‘Golden Generation’ label has already been applied to this current Belgium team which probably isn’t a good thing (although maybe it’s only the Golden Generations that underperform, like England, that don’t appreciate the label). Whatever happens this year, the vast majority of this excellent squad will be going to, at least, the next two World Cups (in fact the squad will probably be largely entering their best years at the 2018 tournament). At every World Cup there’s always a storyline for people to get excited about, for those who love an underdog. Every four years, almost everyone, especially those ludicrous football hipsters (chortle), love to discover that team, nestled in one of the groups, that’s lingering on the edge of international superstardom. So, although Belgium is far too overexposed to be the hipster’s choice this year, theirs is a young and exciting team primed to thrill in Brazil.
This article can also be found on TheTurf.com.au, an exciting new Australian-run football writing website.