Belgium qualify for 2014 World Cup, automatically become everyone’s alternative favorite

Brooks Peck
Dirty Tackle

Undefeated through nine rounds of UEFA qualifiers, Belgium have sealed their first trip to the World Cup since 2002. And so between now and the start of the 2014 World Cup, the most uttered phrase about the tournament will likely be, "Yeah, Brazil/Spain/Germany/Italy will probably win it, but you know who I really like? Belgium."

The Red Devils haven't qualified for the previous two World Cups or the last three European Championships and yet, up to sixth in FIFA's world rankings for the first time — one spot behind South American counterpart Colombia (who had not qualified for a World Cup since 1998 before now) — Belgium have quickly built a welcoming bandwagon filled with beer and waffles big enough for anyone who's interested in hopping on.

Listing the emerging young talents in their golden generation has become the football equivalent of trying to name all 101 Dalmatians. There's Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Cortois (on loan from Chelsea), Spurs defender Jan Vertonghen and midfielders Mousa Dembele and Nacir Chadli, Man City defender Vincent Kompany, Chelsea midfielders Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne, plus Man United midfielder Marouane Fellaini. Then there's Axel Witsel and Christian Benteke and Patch and Lucky and Puddles. Perhaps most exciting of all is 20-year-old striker Romelu Lukaku, who Everton manager Roberto Martinez describes as being "unplayable" at times with his unfair combination of power and technical skill. And that was before he scored twice against Croatia.

Every player on the 23-man squad for their 2-1 win against Croatia is under 30 years old, except for 35-year-old vice captain Daniel Van Buyten. Twelve of them are 25 or younger and there's even a couple of players who could make their World Cup squad who don't know what a landline telephone is.

Despite their youth and inexperience, they have successfully navigated a tricky qualifying group that also includes Croatia and Serbia. No team in any UEFA qualifying group has allowed fewer goals than Belgium (three) and only Spain have matched them, having played two fewer matches.

That's all well and good in the very different atmosphere of qualifying matches, but how will they do in a major tournament? No one can really say. They might get knocked out in the group stage and they might make it to the semifinals (or better?). That's part of the fun. Barring a vicious case of stage fright, they should at least be entertaining in however many matches they play and their genuine joy in experiencing all of this for the first time only increases their likability.

Now let's just hope none of them get caught being racist or skipping drug tests between now and June.

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