This championship marks the 14th tournament appearance by Belgium, who are seeking to go one round further this time around, as Roberto Martinez’s men finished third in 2018. It was their best result since coming fourth in 1986, but Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ are getting older, with no fewer than 11 members of their 26-man squad aged 30 or above.
Among them is influential playmaker Kevin De Bruyne, who’s already mentoring promising up-and-comer Charles De Ketelaere, the exciting 21-year-old midfielder who completed a high-profile move to Milan this past summer.
“I always admired [Kevin] De Bruyne, both for his tactical role and his elegance, someone who makes playing football look so easy,” he told reporters.
“We have a lot of talented players in the squad, some of the best in the world, so we youngsters try to learn from them. Playing for Belgium was my great childhood dream, it’s wonderful to have achieved it so young. Playing in the World Cup is a dream come true.”
Speaking of 1986, that marked Canada’s sole World Cup participation, which saw Les Rouges fail to escape the group phase. John Herdman’s men will be seeking to cause an upset. His squad boasts 14 players currently based in Europe including Alphonso Davies of Bayern Munich and Cyle Larin, who calls Belgium outfit Club Brugge home.
Larin, his nation’s biggest attacking threat alongside Lille marksman Jonathan David, knows all eyes will be on him, but he’s not allowing that to consume him.
“Every time I went into the national team, I never felt the pressure of scoring,” he recently said. “I know the guys around me, I know the quality around me. The ball will get to me, and I’ve just got to work hard for my teammates.
“We do it together. I know the quality Tajon [Buchanan] has, Alphonso (Davies), Jonathan (David), and our midfield. Or defence getting us the ball. I really believe in them. And that’s how I’ve always taken it.
“The ball always finds me in these big games, and I’m always ready. I’ll be ready for the World Cup, too.”
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As touched upon, Belgium isn’t lacking experienced players. Six members of Martinez’s squad are centurions and first-choice goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois is three games away from joining them.
Romelu Lukaku is his nation’s all-time top scorer with 68 goals, though it remains to be seen how involved he will be in Qatar as he’s coming back from a serious injury. Since his first World Cup in 2014, Cristiano Ronaldo (13) is the only European player to have scored more goals than him (11) at major international tournaments.
That being said, Lukaku’s understudy Batshuayi has stepped up in 2022, having netted four goals and created three more across nine international outings.
To say Larin and David played a significant role in Canada’s reaching Qatar would be an understatement. During the Octagonal phase of CONCACAF’s World Cup qualification programme, they were responsible for 11 of their side’s 23 goals.
Larin was the overall top scorer with six goals – one ahead of David, who tied with USA forward Christian Pulisic with five strikes.