Belgium and its star playmaker Eden Hazard are tipped by many to be the surprise package of the 2014 World Cup, but with little or no big tournament experience between the players, one could easily question whether the team is ready yet. Not since the late 80s and early 90s has Belgium had any kind of international presence. The halcyon days of Enzo Scifo, Jean-Marie Pfaff and Michel Preud’homme and Luc Nilis gave the country a team to be proud of. Around 20 barren years followed as Belgium only tended to produce the odd good player but rarely one good enough to build a team around. The nation could only cast envious glances at neighbors Netherlands and France, both of whom consistently managed to put together decent sides.
Then in 2007, an Hazard-inspired side reached the semi-finals of the European Under-17 Championships for the first time in the nation’s history. Just a year later , Belgium went to the Beijing Olympics where they finished fourth. However, the team was absent for Euro 2012, which showed that the young players coming through the ranks were not quite ready to lead Belgium out of the international wilderness.
Since then the world has seen the growth of Marouane Fellaini, Simon Mignolet, Vincent Kompany, Christian Benteke and Romelu Lukaku. The pick of the group is Chelsea’s Hazard. Since joining the Blues from Lille in 2012, Hazard has put in a series of performances worthy of his position as José Mourinho’s first choice. His positional play, vision and goalscoring attributes have helped keep Chelsea at the top of the Premier League table despite not having a regular goalscoring striker in the team.
The World Cup, however, is a different league altogether. Not because the standard is higher than Hazard and co. are used to. After all, the Champions League produces far stiffer tests along the way. It is because the pressure on hosts Brazil will be immense, while Argentina, Spain and Germany are among the other favorites due to the high level of talent and experience at their disposal. Spain will be aiming to win back-to-back World Cups having already achieved the same feat with back-to-back Euros.
Belgium has the players to get out of a relatively tame group consisting of Algeria, Russia and South Korea, but to go all the way the team needs leaders. Hazard might well be the best technically an he is ready to test his abilities on the world stage, but at 23 he lacks the leadership qualities and experience to pull the team across the line. Technical ability is one thing, but leadership qualities are something very different. Hazard is not ready to carry so much of the burden loaded on Argentina’s Diego Maradona in 1986.
Former Belgium manager Georges Leekens has backed Hazard to use this tournament to emerge from the shadows of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. While there is no doubt Belgium will be a team to watch, a tournament where the stakes are so high for the local countries means and other footballing superpowers means it could be a tournament to soon for Hazard and his teammates. For that reason, they are not ready yet. Euro 2016 in neighboring France might be the right platform for this young side.
World Cup Preview is a daily series providing commentary and analysis of the teams and players participating in this year’s World Cup in Brazil.
Commentary by Robert Shepherd