Belgium failed to qualify for the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, but the emergence of a much-hyped golden generation suggests they could be genuine contenders at the 2014 edition in Brazil.
To realize why, you only need glance at the Belgium lineup that beat Wales 2-0 in their opening World Cup qualifier in Cardiff.
In goal was Thibaut Courtois, the highly rated 20-year-old Chelsea signed on a five-year deal from Genk. Courtois is currently on loan at Atletico Madrid, where he made himself first choice last season, but he is potentially the long-term successor to Petr Cech.
Ahead of him, Belgium's imposing defense featured Arsenal's Thomas Vermaelen, Jan Vertonghen of Tottenham and Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany.
In midfield, the Premier League theme continued with Moussa Dembele (Spurs) and Eden Hazard (Chelsea)—two players of contrasting styles who have started the new campaign in dominant and irresistible form, respectively.
Axel Witsel, meanwhile, is the 23-year-old darling of the transfer gossip columns who last week left Benfica for Russian club Zenit St. Petersburg for a reported £32 million.
Those three were joined by the lesser-known Dries Mertens, and—perhaps inspired by the precocious talents around him—it was the 25-year-old PSV Eindhoven player who earned most praise after Belgium ran out comfortable winners against 10-man Wales.
Belgium's attack was an all-Everton production of Kevin Mirallas and Marouane Fellaini.
The former was signed from Olympiacos on deadline day and arrived on the back of a title-winning season in Greece in which he scored 20 goals in 25 league games. Fellaini is Everton's best player and has already announced his intention to move to a bigger club next season, if not before (via The Independent).
There was more quality to be found on the substitutes' bench.
Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku are both young Chelsea players with bright futures—out on loan at Werder Bremen and West Brom, respectively. Goalkeeper Simon Mignolet has started both of Sunderland's Premier League games this season, while 21-year-old striker Christian Benteke—who joined Aston Villa on deadline day—is another tipped for big things.
It's not just the talent at Belgium's disposal that's striking; it's the youthful nature of it. Marc Wilmots' starting XI against Wales had an average age of 24, with not a single player 30 or over.
With two years of development between here and Brazil, Belgium are only going to get better. And their current FIFA world ranking of No. 40 is made to look more unlikely with every performance.
But to advance to Brazil in 2014, Belgium must first shake off the lingering hangover of their recent past. Having failed to qualify for a major tournament at their last four attempts, Belgium's low seeding saw them drawn in a tough World Cup qualifying group alongside Serbia and Croatia.
To avoid a playoff or worse, Wilmots' team will need to finish above both in Group A. And that won't be made easier by the rising levels of expectation around what is fast becoming the most talked-about international team in Europe.
Discussion of Belgium's golden generation will now dominate the buildup to their every game. People are already comparing Wilmots' men to the 1986 team which beat Spain on the way to the World Cup semifinals. With that comes the pressure of expectancy.
"We have to keep both feet on the ground," said Lukaku, as per the The Guardian. "If we do better than the team of '86, then you can talk of us as the golden era."
“A good team is based solely on results," said Wilmots, as per The Daily Telegraph, after his men had, by all accounts, completely outclassed Wales.
Unsurprisingly, Wilmots would rather Belgium kept a low profile until the business of qualifying is over. But with the likes of Hazard, Kompany, Fellaini and Witsel in his team, that luxury no longer exists. If that's the price of a heady array of talent, then you'd imagine all of Belgium is ready to pay it.
If I were Belgian, I'd be excited.
Is it really conceivable that they might upset the heavyweight likes of Spain, Brazil and Argentina and win it all in 2014?
The fact the tournament is in South America makes it less likely, but based on the riches at Belgium's disposal and with the inspiration of Hazard to consider, you'd be a fool to rule it out.
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