Belgium still regret the day, exactly four years ago, when an opportunity begged and they fell short. It was not a vintage Argentina side that they faced in Brasilia and, despite going behind to an early Gonzalo Higuain goal, they had plenty of time to put things right. But they never really looked like pulling level and, despite the wealth of vaunted talent they could call upon, went home at the quarterfinal stage.
So much had been promised but, faced with an experienced giant, they failed to live up to their breathless billing.
Now they face battle-hardened, world-class opponents once again, but the situation feels different. Belgium have a different manager, Roberto Martinez, but they also have plenty more football under their belts, and when they kick off against Brazil on Saturday, there will be a palpable sense that their time has to be now. For half a decade this generation of Belgian players has been touted as one that would, one day, be able to take on and beat the best: now they have to prove it and, as much as any demonstration of their football ability, the key will surely lie in how they master their psychological approach.
It was an excellent question, then, that a Belgian journalist put to Martinez in his pre-match news conference. The talk from the Belgium camp — repeated by Romelu Lukaku earlier in the afternoon — has been that they are the underdogs against a Brazil team with history and honours behind them. Did that mean that, faced with the possibility of an era-defining triumph, Belgium are afraid of being favourites?
“No, no, the difference is clear,” Martinez stressed. “The two sides are very similar in terms of the qualities we have, you’re right in describing the talent. The difference is that we haven’t won a World Cup, it’s as simple as that. When you’ve gone into a tournament and haven’t had the know-how of winning a tournament, you can’t have the advantage. Brazil have got that psychological barrier out of the way.”
Perhaps, but none of Brazil’s current squad have a World Cup to their name and the weight of history, particularly in as intense a football environment as the South American country, can work two ways. A little modesty is understandable, but nobody would be too put out if Belgium swaggered into town, “This is what we’ve got — now what will you do about it?”
What Belgium have is a free-scoring side — 12 in their four games to date — whose attacking patterns, as shown in the manner of Nacer Chadli’s scintillating winner against Japan, are more sophisticated than those of anyone else left in the tournament. Brazil have been calling upon Willian to put the brakes on Eden Hazard, but the likes of Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne and Dries Mertens have also been in sleek form, and there is also the plan B — involving the towering figure of Marouane Fellaini — that worked so well on Monday.
So far Belgium have found a way to put sides to the sword, even when their backs have been against the wall. It is a trait well worth celebrating.
“The biggest strength in our squad is that we’ve got different ways of attacking,” Martinez said. Belgium feel they can exploit Fagner, Brazil’s inexperienced right-back, and hurt a defence that has been relatively untroubled so far. They will surely have more cutting edge than Mexico, who flattered to deceive in the round of 16, but the concern lies further back.
The defence looked cumbersome against Japan, Jan Vertonghen particularly slow on his feet as Genki Haraguchi ran clear to open the scoring, and it is also a concern that they shipped two goals to Tunisia. They have been far from the most unbalanced side at this World Cup, but increasingly it appears their best chance of going all the way is by subscribing to the traditional Martinez playbook: we’ll score one more than you.
“For the last two years we’ve been preparing for this moment,” continued Martinez, whose side certainly looks far more coherent than the often-hesitant outfit bequeathed by Marc Wilmots.
That, however, is not quite true.
Belgium have been building up to a test like this since the turn of the decade, when a teenage Hazard had already made his debut and Lukaku was on the verge of his own international bow. This is an occasion many years in the making and Belgium, after so much talk around their prospects, have to deliver this time.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.