The World Cup is less than 100 days away and, unsurprisingly, bookmakers and fans are already busy making predictions. But what if you looked past that? What if you started thinking about possible World Cup winners in 2014 or even 2018?
If you could find somebody who would take your bet, you might want to put down some money on Belgium as a dark-horse value bet. Never mind that they failed to qualify for the past two World Cups or that they have featured only once in the European Championship since 1984 (and that was in 2000, when they were co-hosts). Right now, no country its size has as impressive a crop of precocious 16 to 22-years-old.
A fair chunk of it is in central midfield. Axel Witsel, who turned 21 in January, made headlines for an X-rated tackle that became a YouTube classic, but there’s much more to his game than that.
Steven Defour, also 21, is a natural leader and an elegant passer who has propelled Standard Liège into the Champions League. Sir Alex Ferguson was constantly monitoring his progress.
Next comes Marouane Fellaini, 22, has been a mainstay for Everton in the past two seasons.
Then there’s Jan Vertonghen, a versatile left-footed giant of 22 who anchors the Ajax midfield but can play at the back or out wide as well.
There’s plenty to choose from farther up the pitch, too. Eden Hazard, who turned 19 in January, was voted Young Player of the Year in France last season and the pocket-sized Lille attacking midfield player is a constant pacey and creative threat, as Liverpool found out last week.
Kevin Mirallas, 22, a dangerous attacking midfield player or striker with bags of potential.
Moussa Dembélé, 22, another dynamic attacker, played a key role as Alkmaar won the Dutch title last season.
The most exciting talent of all, however, is Romelu Lukaku, a 6ft 3in man-child of a centre forward who made his debut for Belgium last month at the age of 16. He has scored 13 goals for Anderlecht in the Jupiler League this season, despite often coming on as a substitute.
While the Belgian league is what it is, his strike-rate of one goal every 100 minutes of league football is staggering, let alone for a player his age: it’s about the same as Wayne Rooney’s, who is eight years his senior and arguably the best centre forward around at present. Lukaku has size, athleticism, pace and silky skills. You’re tempted to draw parallels with Didier Drogba.
But there’s one important difference. When Drogba was Lukaku’s age, he was playing youth-team football for Levallois, a semi-professional side. In fact, it wasn’t until he was 24 and playing for Guingamp that he started to make waves.
And that’s perhaps what is most remarkable about this group of young Belgians: their precociousness. Lukaku is a regular at 16, Fellaini, Hazard and Defour have been starting for decent sides since the age of 17, Dembélé and Witsel since they were 18, Vertonghen and Mirallas 19. The skills and experience they’re gaining at such a young age will, no doubt, serve them well down the road.
So, any bet on Belgium winning 2014 World Cup?