The Belgians have been waiting a long time for all this, and it shows. The squad are seen as the fruits of a brilliant coaching culture, but after a 12-year absence from the World Cup finals there is a distinct anxiety about their desire to get things right in Brazil.
Their base is relaxed enough: the Paradise Golf and Lake Resort, 90 minutes out of Sao Paulo in a rural landscape that time forgot, where basket weavers work at the roadside on the red-clay terrain. But this is new territory for the players. Even their head coach, Marc Wilmots, captain when the side last exited a World Cup, at the hands of a Brazil team who then overcame England in Shizuoka, has been edgy at times. Judging by the opening fixture against Algeria, he has also been overthinking how to get through the group stage, which brings them up against Russia in Rio de Janeiro today.
The decision not to start that first game with Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini caused surprise in Belgium, and in retrospect was an error of judgement. Wilmots’ logic was that the team needed someone with more trickery to get past the North Africans’ five-man defensive block, but Fellaini became the game’s stand-out player in less than half an hour on the field, lifting the team from a poor first-half display.
The 26-year-old must be wondering when someone is going to start believing in his qualities, after a desperate nine months since his move to Old Trafford. He is a mild-mannered and normally gregarious individual, but has retreated from view. For the first time since initially establishing himself at Standard Liège he has not granted an interview to the Belgian media all season.
Belgium’s 21-year-old striker Romelu Lukaku said ahead of today’s game that it was time for the English to “stop doubting” Fellaini’s qualities, and for United to stop playing him out of position. “The way he was used last year was not the way he should have been used,” Lukaku told The Independent on Sunday. “I think they should play him higher up the pitch – not as a No 6 but as a No 8, because he scores a lot of goals and covers a lot of the pitch. That’s how he played at Everton, and that’s how he should have played last season.”
Another Belgian chewed up and spat out in England – the 22-year-old Kevin de Bruyne, who is finding himself again at Wolfsburg after a difficult time at Chelsea – also had reasons to doubt Wilmots’ strategy against Algeria. He is the team’s playmaker, even more influential in knitting Belgium together than Eden Hazard, whose threat comes through pace and power – but was deployed on the right in Belo Horizonte. It was when he was restored to central midfield that the Diables Rouges finally found their range.
It was not so straightforward for Lukaku. One match statistic illustrates his struggle to make any impression against Algeria: he had no touches of the ball in the penalty area, and was withdrawn just before the hour. It is a widely held view around the Belgian camp that the Chelsea striker – Wilmots’ main goalscoring option here in Christian Benteke’s absence – is not the finished article. His season’s work at Everton with Roberto Martinez, who wants him back on loan, has certainly added a more technical element to his game. He is linking up more with the midfield than the more technically gifted Benteke does. But his ball retention was poor last week in a game which left him complaining that he had been used too much as a target man, a familiar refrain – Lukaku hates his reputation as a big man in the box.
He made no secret of his desire to see Fellaini (left) start today. “It is always better for me when Fellaini plays. He can give power and presence in the box,” he said. “The defenders always have an eye on Fellaini and that then creates space for me. The next game will be much better, as in the first game we played under a lot of pressure.”
Wilmots has insisted his captain, Vincent Kompany, is fit despite a groin strain preventing him training for two days. His partner in central defence is likely to be Daniel van Buyten, the only survivor of the 2002 exit, which came after a headed goal from Wilmots against Brazil was controversially disallowed. Van Buyten is not the most mobile, but has accelerated ahead of Belgium’s vice-captain, Thomas Vermaelen, in the pecking order in the past six months. Manchester United’s interest in Vermaelen belies his collapse in form and self-confidence for Belgium. He was poor against Luxembourg in a warm-up game, and few complained when Van Buyten was preferred to him last week.
Lukaku suggested that Belgium, with their galaxy of Premier League stars, might become the team English fans now follow. But it is in keeping with Belgium’s early uncertainties that no one is expecting success to last too long. They will probably face Portugal in the last 16.
“So our fate is with Cristiano Ronaldo,” said one source close to the camp. “If he plays well, Portugal are better than us. If he doesn’t they are not.” Being among world-beaters is one thing. Thinking like them is something else entirely.
Belgium v Russia is live on UBC Sunday, kick-off 7pm
Preview by Ian Herbert for The Indepedent