BRUSSELS, Belgium — With the World Cup upon us, the giants of the game are competing for soccer's greatest prize. There's Brazil, Argentina, Spain… and Belgium.
That's right, Belgium!
Nicknamed "the Red Devils," the exciting young team from this factious kingdom are being tipped to shake up the football order in Brazil.
"We're heading to Brazil on a full tank of confidence," captain Vincent Kompany told reporters last Saturday after a warm-up win over Tunisia.
Kompany, who led Manchester City to the English Premier League title for the second time this season, is just one of a glittering new generation of Belgian players who strut their stuff in Europe's top clubs.
Goalie Thibaut Courtois was the bedrock of Atletico Madrid's victory in La Liga this season. Daniel Van Buyten is a defensive stalwart at German champions Bayern Munich. And Chelsea striker Eden Hazzard was voted the Premier League's best young player in 2013-14.
In a country long starved of soccer glory, the expectation of World Cup success is generating a serious outbreak of public excitement with implications beyond the soccer fields of Brazil.
The team is a rare factor of unity in a country divided by language and politics, where a Flemish nationalist party devoted to the eventual division of country won national elections last month.
Belgium’s 6 million Dutch-speakers and 4 million Francophones have long drifted apart.
Conventional wisdom has held that the monarchy, support for the team and a shared love of good beer are the only factors holding the country together.
But that may be ending. New figures this week show beer consumption has slumped by a fifth over the past decade — to a mere annual 152 pints per person — while the victorious New Flemish Alliance Party currently leading negotiations to form a government is avowedly republican.
But whether they call them les Diables Rouges or de Rode Duivels, Belgians are still uniting to root for the Red Devils.
That means separatist politicians have had to tread warily to avoid upsetting fans.
"Personally I'm happy the national team is doing well," Bart De Wever, nationalist leader and possible next prime minister, told P Magazine last year. "It creates a positive atmosphere, bars fill up. As far as I'm concerned, the Red Devils should be world champions right away."
Although De Wever is dismissive of talk the team's success could influence politics, unity supporters are hoping success in Brazil could create a feel-good factor that will help bind the country together.
Despite the team’s studious avoiding of politics in the run up to the World Cup, Kompany and coach Marc Wilmots have made no secret of their attachment to a united Belgium.
Wilmots turned to politics after a successful career as a player and was elected to the Belgian Senate on a liberal ticket in 2003.
Kompany — an articulate, multilingual 28-year-old who runs clubs for underprivileged children and is studying for an MBA in his spare time — is widely expected to follow his city councilor father into politics after his soccer career.
On the soccer field, Belgium's ambition is to at least equal the exploits of the country's last "golden generation," which reached the semi-finals of the 1986 Mexico World Cup.
Belgian soccer has been in slow decline ever since. The national team failed to qualify for the last two World Cups in 2010 and 2006 while local clubs fell victim to the game's transformation into big business.
Storied teams such as Anderlecht, Standard Liege and FC Brugge have long dropped out of Europe's elite, unable to compete with the big bucks earned by clubs in the major leagues of Germany, Italy, England and Spain.
The national team's low point came in 2000, when it co-hosted the European Championship and became the first home team ever to crash out in the first round.
That prompted the Belgian Football Federation to launch a long-term program to nurture young talent, emulating successful neighbors France and the Netherlands.
Ditching the dogged, defensive style for which the country was notorious, coaches have placed a new emphasis on attacking football, giving reign to individual skills.
They also developed street soccer in inner city neighborhoods. Clubs became incubators for young talent quickly snapped up by Europe's big clubs.
Striker Romelu Lukaku moved from Anderlecht to Chelsea at age 18 for a reported $33 million. Axel Witsel left Racing Genk for Portugal's Benfica before signing with Russia's Zenit St. Petersburg for a cool $54 million. And rising star Adnan Januzaj was just 16 when Manchester United snapped him up from Anderlecht three years ago.
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Belgium's squad is second youngest in the World Cup, but also the third-most expensive behind only Brazil and reigning world champions Spain. The country has jumped to 11th in the FIFA world rankings from a low of 71 in 2007.
Bookies are now making Belgium the 5th favorite to win the World Cup with odds of 20 to 1 behind Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Spain, but ahead of Portugal, France, Italy, Uruguay and England.
This little land famed for its beer, chocolate and complicated politics is often looked-down upon by its larger neighbors. Brits like to claim it's nearly impossible to name 10 famous Belgians.
But if Kompany and his teammates hit their form in Brazil, soccer fans around the world will suddenly find that a lot easier to do.