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Golden generation well used to silverware aims to write history

YOU know you have emerged as a genuine force in world football when the hipsters start to turn their attention somewhere else.

Belgium's many superstars prepare for their opening match against Algeria. Picture: EPA
Belgium's many superstars prepare for their opening match against Algeria. Picture: EPA

There is nobody gaining a raft of retweets on Twitter or getting thumbs-up "likes" on Facebook for offering their detailed insight on Belgium's chances at this World Cup.

Man, that was soooooooo 2012. The soccerati have moved on, dressed instead in their Ecuador replica tops as they bang on about why Miralem Pjanic is key to Bosnia and Herzegovina's prospects of making it out of the group.

Belgium, then, have returned to the mainstream. It is now 28 years since Guy Thys' side reached the World Cup semi-finals in Mexico, and 12 since Belgium reached a major tournament at all. It has been a long wait for them but they are back now and not just to make up the numbers. You cannot have a crop of players this talented, most operating out of Europe's biggest leagues, and still be considered dark horses. A lack of tournament experience may go against them in comparison with favourites such as Brazil and Argentina but in every other category - form, pedigree, strength in depth - they stack up as well as anybody.

A successful club campaign does not always guarantee similar success on the international front but it rarely does any harm.

In Belgium's squad there are a number who concluded the season laden with silverware. Thibaut Courtois and Toby Alderweireld helped Atletico Madrid win the Primera Division and reach the Champions League final.

Daniel van Buyten won a German double with Bayern Munich. Vincent Kompany captained Manchester City to the Barclays Premier League title, Thomas Vermaelen - linked with a move to Manchester United - was part of Arsenal's FA Cup-winning squad (although he did not get on), and Dries Mertens won the Coppa Italia with Napoli.

Anthony Vanden Borre won the Belgian title with Anderlecht. None of that means Belgium will be similarly prosperous, but having a group with a winning mentality can only go in their favour.

Even those who did not win anything domestically still improved their reputations. Simon Mignolet was terrific for Liverpool, Jan Vertonghen played almost 40 times for Tottenham Hotspur, Steven Defour was pivotal for Porto, Eden Hazard lit up the Chelsea team, and both Romelu Lukaku and Kevin Mirallas were effective for Everton.

And if that was not enough, Belgium were even able to persuade Manchester United's Adnan Januzaj to throw in his lot with them as well, thus ending England's faint chances of recruiting the Brussels-born forward of Kosovan stock.

If every squad at the World Cup has a few lesser lights then it is difficult to see who in the Belgium group is the supposed weak link. Sammy Bossut, the third-choice goalkeeper, plays for Waregem, the team that finished fourth in the Belgian top division, while Divock Origi, perhaps not a household name, is a 19 year-old striker with Lille in France's Ligue 1 and another tipped for great things.

They seem well stocked in just about every area of the pitch, even without Christian Benteke who misses out due to injury.

How far they can go, then, would seem to depend on how well they handle the pressure and expectation. They have been placed in Group H with opponents who will offer a stern examination of their credentials without derailing their progress at this juncture.

They open this evening against an obdurate Algerian side, take on Russia on Saturday, then conclude against South Korea a week on Thursday. Should they win the group as expected, they will likely face either Portugual, USA or Ghana in the last 16. Should they progress beyond that, plenty will take notice. "I have never said we are favourites or underdogs," said Marc Wilmots, the manager and scorer of Belgium's last World Cup goal in 2002.

"The players will be hungry and this is what gives us strength. Pressure is when you have a child who is sick and in the hospital.

"Here, it is pure pleasure. Is this a golden generation? We'll see when we will do something.

"We must close the history book and write our own history."

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